Thursday, February 1, 2018

allegory! With Aronofsky

"mother!" is a far more enjoyable film to take apart and analyze than it is to watch. To a degree, the same can be said of all Darren Aronofsky films, since he's very fond of bombarding his audience with extremely intense, uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing images and sounds. I can't say that there are any Aronofsky films I've enjoyed watching, though his facility at creating these very tactile, visceral nightmare worlds has always been impressive. So I can certainly appreciate the hell out of his work, even if the thought of revisiting most of his films makes me automatically cringe.

And so it is with "mother!" which is presented as a story where nothing is really real from the start, but it's told with enough skill that many important aspects of it still ping as genuine. Jennifer Lawrence plays an young woman who is in a relationship with an older man played by Javier Bardem. The man is writer, suffering a creative block, and the couple has retreated to a beautiful, isolated house that the woman has poured her energies into restoring. Everything is lovely, until uninvited guests come to call, sparking violence, destruction, and ruin. None of the characters in the film have names, though the credits provide some interesting descriptors, and their universe operates by largely by dream logic.

The experiences of the couple are obviously meant to represent other events, and specific characters are stand-ins for more amorphous figures, ideas, and concepts. Aronofsky has already acknowledged the most obvious readings that connect "mother!" to various mythological, literary, and historical narratives. However, it's also fun to speculate that the story might be a meta-commentary on Aronofsky's own relationships and dealings with fame, or to read it as a feminist or environmentalist statement. "mother!" clearly wants its audience to actively interpret it, constantly pointing out the unreality of its universe and including obvious symbolism and wildly exaggerated behavior. There's no subtlety here whatsoever.

But does the film itself work as a narrative? Mostly, yes. I've heard some complaints that the marketing erroneously tried to sell this as a horror film instead of the art film it is, but I thought "mother!" functioned very much like a thriller in many respects. It may be one of the toughest Aronofsky films to watch, and considering the rest of his filmography, that's saying something. We start off with a little social anxiety and some microaggressions to set your teeth on edge, and things escalate from there to very uncomfortable extremes. Some images in the movie are among the most disturbing things that I've ever seen in a mainstream picture. Jennifer Lawrence's character is put through vile, traumatic ordeals more commonly found in Lars von Trier's oeuvre.

And it's largely thanks to Lawrence and Javier Bardem that "mother!" maintains enough of an emotional core to keep us invested in what's going on. Their characters may not be real, but their relationship feels genuine. Lawrence is playing against type as a soft-spoken, introverted young woman, trying to maintain some control over her house and her increasingly troubled relationship. It's easy to sympathize with her as she struggles to voice her concerns to a distracted partner, or to deflect prying questions from a rude guest. The vast majority of the movie is either showing us her POV, or keeps the camera very close to Lawrence's face so that we can see her expressions and reactions in detail. So as the emotional devastation compounds, the audience gets no relief from her distress.

Compared to Aronofsky's other films, "mother!" strikes me as one of the more self-indulgent pictures, but also one of the most daring and well-executed. I can't think of many other modern films that have been so blatant about wanting to shock and disturb an unsuspecting audience, and none that have used an actress as high profile as Jennifer Lawrence to do it. It's also unapologetically a weird art film, contains unusually graphic content, and manages to talk about all kinds of thorny subjects like religion and gender relations without actually talking about any of those things directly. There's some technically astounding stuff in the last act too.

So as much as I think some of its twists might be in bad taste, or that some of the metaphors are a little too on the nose, I came away from "mother!" just giddily impressed that Aronofsky had the audacity to make the film. A few moments of black humor and the performances aside, this is not a film I especially enjoyed watching. However, I absolutely recommend it to anyone with a strong stomach, because there's nothing else I've seen this year that remotely resembles "mother!" or displays the same kind of wonderfully mad, uncompromised ambition.

And I really do enjoy trying to figure out what it all means. From a distance.


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