Branded as one of the most controversial and audience-splitting films in recent years, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! certainly appeals to the darker corridors of the imagination. mother! refuses to conform with any single genre. Mark Kermode describes it as “a Rosemary’s Baby-style expression of antenatal paranoia; as a war-of-the-sexes fable about older men feeding upon the support of younger women; even as a simple tale of marital breakdown”, which teasingly scratches the film’s surface. This is surrealist cinema at its finest with a biblical structure akin to symbolist poetry. Its appeal lies in its intricate design and enigmatic suggestiveness, leaving you mentally stimulated, albeit emotionally empty.
Jenifer Lawrence plays an unnamed ‘Mother’ married to Javier Bordem or ‘Him’; a prophetic poet with writer’s block in a secluded house with its own heartbeat. Aronofsky engineers a chilling atmosphere of estrangement and suspense with deft camerawork and sound effects surrounding Lawrence as the film’s focal point. Our vision is channelled through Lawrence’s eyes or through persistent over-the-shoulder shots, often revealing a startling masculine presence lurking around a corner. The film’s intense jolts in pitch including screeching kettle steam, resemble the rush of blood and psychological pressure of a woman battling for control of her own body. Shades of Emma Gifford, (the tragically neglected first wife of the novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy) linger in Lawrence’s figure, ‘even to the original air-blue gown’ draped close to Lawrence’s body at the start of the film. Both ghostly and with new-born innocence, Lawrence is caught in a liminal position between life and death in tune with the film’s circular narrative arc, from her ashen remains to her first-line, ‘Babe?’, indicative of renewal. Much like Gifford, Lawrence becomes progressively estranged from her husband and his quasi-religious cult of followers, even as the muse of his poetry.
Aronofsky’s employment of setting effectively stimulates frustration and discomfort as the domestic sphere of the house is fused with Lawrence’s mindscape. As the house becomes invaded by a mysterious doctor, his alcoholic wife and violent sons, Lawrence’s identity rapidly decays. Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderfully horrifying as a lascivious and grating woman who pierces Lawrence’s innocence, particularly through icy glares and curt diction. Aranofsky’s use of setting beautifully parallels Lawrence’s acting; the octagonal house structure and gloomy corridors mirror Lawrence’s physical distress as she becomes lost in her own mind. Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Felt a funeral in My Brain’ is vividly reimagined during the invasive wake of mourners whose black clothes further ostracise Lawrence in her white nightshirt. Sixty-six minutes of extreme close-ups of Lawrence’s face, the interplay of lighting silhouettes and microscopic domestic detail reinterpret Dickinson’s minimalistic poetics of centre and circumference. The twenty-first century American woman enters a disturbing symbiosis with her own house; Lawrence becomes engulfed in its shadows and cornered in its walls. Whilst effective in communicating female effacement, the film crosses the line with its extreme depiction of domestic violence and brutality. In an interview Lawrence stated, “I kind of lost control of myself. I tore my diaphragm and popped my chest rib out”, which speaks for itself.
Aronofsky’s ecofeminism is apparent in a subversive warning about human neglect and abuse of the planet, illustrated through the physical destitution of Lawrence’s body and the film’s colour-pallet. Aranofsky’s contrasting use of black and grey hues is pierced by striking green tints of foliage glimpsed out of doorframes and windows, as well as in panoptic simulations of the trees around the house in Lawrence’s visionary dreams, subtly hinting at the environment forsaken in our periphery. These vestigial glimpses of Nature answer back to Walter Benjamin’s claim that ‘the equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology’. The film illustrates how our Romantic vision of Nature as Eden has become an unattainable desire in the modern world of simulated visual culture and sinful pleasures, through graded lighting and long-shots which play with Lawrence’s perception of reality. Bordem’s office acts as a symbolic Garden of Eden, nesting his precious crystal which is smashed by Pfeiffer’s transgressive greed as a symbolic incarnation of Eve. Once you pick up on one Biblical allusion it becomes apparent that there is a thread stringing the narrative together, from the doctor’s missing rib as an allusion to Adam to the apocalyptic climax resembling the conflagratory imagery of Revelations. The colophon of Aronofksy’s art lies in the audience’s negative epiphany, as they realise that Lawrence symbolises ‘Mother Nature’, neglected, exploited and battered by humanity. A startling and powerful message which is at risk of falling flat due to the complexity of the film’s biblical web and frenetic plot.
A striking masterpiece to some a grotesque enigma to others, mother! remains an audience-splitter. Despite the overly disturbing moments of violence and at times alienating plot, mother! illuminates the shadowed position of women in the home and human exploitation of the Earth with stark visual imagery, poetic symbolism and skilful acting. As Martin Scorsese asserts, “Only a passionate filmmaker could have made this picture, which I’m still experiencing weeks after I saw it”. mother! is a hauntingly intelligent experience which is strongly felt throughout and will keep you quizzically analysing its crafted design and coded meanings for days afterwards. A cinematic ode to ecofeminism.
This review was written about a film shown by The Bede Film Society.
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