Alongside David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky is one of the few modern filmmakers whose work penetrates the mainstream of cineplexes yet often remains profoundly opaque, an experience rather than a narrative, a sensation more often disturbing and unsettling than comforting, and his latest creation, mother!, is no exception to this.
The relatively linear narrative of 2014’s Noah seeming to be a rare concession to conventional storytelling despite the controversy it generated, a not infrequent response to Aronofsky’s work also present following the release of Black Swan, mixing ambition and devotion to creativity at the cost to oneself the themes of that film are revisited, but also present is much of The Fountain which divided critics when released in 2006.
Passengers’ Jennifer Lawrence is the otherwise unnamed “mother” who lives with her poet husband “Him” (Skyfall’s Javier Bardem) in their perfect country house which she has been restoring following a major fire while he struggles with his words and verses, yet from the outset something is wrong as the camera obsessively follows her, never Him.
The house sitting in its own shadow, with no driveway or path through the trees to offer approach or exit, outside is life and colour while inside she is devoted to and doting on a man who is closed and absent. A knock on the door in the night brings a stranger (Westworld’s Ed Harris) and the following morning his wife (Dark Shadows‘ Michelle Pfeiffer) who make themselves at home too easily, and while the poet plays genial host his wife becomes a domestic, tacitly criticised or ignored by the newcomers.
With blood in the swirling waters of the guest room toilet and on the wooden floorboards she scrubs, penetrating into the foundations of the house and catalysing the crumbling of the façade of their lives, her efforts to build a home are inconsequential next to the struggles of her husband regardless of the fact that she has generated results when He has not but such a cult as He gathers can turn on its messiah with little provocation.
Caught up in someone else’s drama in which she has little say and no control, is mother! about the struggle between art and commerce, about the need for adoration, about the necessity of cultivating a barrier between a creator and their overly demanding public? He may create art but she only can create life, but both require pain and sacrifice.
Walking through her life as though it were a nightmare, where The Fountain was about loss, grief and acceptance of the inevitability of death, this places those emotions in a battlefield where colours and sounds and perceptions shift and squirm uncontrollably, and any hint of renewal is strictly self-serving rather than self-sacrifice, perhaps a reflection of the different times in which this film was conceived.
In darkness, rain and fire sound the same, and this is a much darker reflection than Aronofsky has presented in a long time, but while the director has once again drawn the finest performances from his cast which also includes The Force Awakens‘ Domhnall Gleeson, Tiger Raid‘s Brian Gleeson, Ghostbusters‘ Kristen Wiig and Pontypool‘s Stephen McHattie, it is not an art which will sell to the masses.