Advance intel on Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! has been sparse, and the few dark droplets the Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream director has seen fit to leak haven’t clarified much. A poster showed the face of its star, Jennifer Lawrence, lying supine in profile against the silhouette of a sinister house, hinting at shared DNA with Rosemary’s Baby.
Its entry in this year’s Venice Film Festival programme promised a psychological thriller “about love, devotion and sacrifice”. And in his oblique director’s statement, Aronofsky references war, famine, climate change and the ongoing refugee crisis – but in a way that frames them less as inspirations than the raw materials in a kind of apocalyptic chemistry experiment. Combine the lot, shake furiously, stand well back, and Mother! comes seething out, like toxic froth.
There’s no question Aronofsky has made something that will turn some dizzy with delirium while others retch on its fumes. (The Venice audience curdled cleanly down the middle: half cheers and half boos, with one particularly furious critic yelling about Buñuel in Spanish.) But for me, the former is the only possible response. This is a mad, transfixing, rolling thunder-crash of a film – What To Expect When You’re Expecting by way of Goya’s Disasters of War – that holds its considerable nerve until the final cut to black.
None of the characters have names, but Lawrence plays a young woman who lives in a grand wooden house in the middle of a meadow with her older husband (Javier Bardem), a famous writer suffering from terminal creative block. The house is his, and was seriously damaged in a fire at some point in the past. Now his wife is painstakingly restoring it, while also cooking and cleaning, while he sits in his study upstairs, wrestling with his work. A strangely shaped crystal sits in a metal stand by his desk: it was the one thing he was able to retrieve from the ashes, and means a lot to him, for reasons that will later become – well, “clear” might be stretching it, but gruesomely apparent at least.
One day, there’s a knock at the door. Outside is a strange man (Ed Harris), whom Bardem welcomes in with arms flung wide. Lawrence is uneasy – he claims to be there because he mistook the house for a bed and breakfast – but Bardem hopes he’ll find the company inspiring, so invites him to stay the night.
The following morning, the strange man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, suitcase in hand, and likewise makes herself at home at Bardem’s insistence. Now Lawrence is horrified: her husband doesn’t seem to see their home as the sanctuary she’s worked so hard to create.
I don’t share the Buñuel guy’s outrage, but he had a point: there’s an umbilical connection between Mother! and the surrealist master’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests at a dinner party find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the room.
British audiences might also spot a number of significant likenesses to the Sarah Kane play Blasted, in which a series of spiralling horrors are visited on a couple in a hotel room in Leeds. Now widely considered an epochal work, Kane’s play was dismissed on its first performance as a “feast of filth” – a description which could equally apply to the later passages of Aronofsky’s film, in which the film’s sense of restraint finally snaps, and all hell (arguably literally) breaks loose.
Yet aside from a few brief long shots of the house from outside, Mother! unfolds entirely within its walls, and exclusively from Lawrence’s perspective. The camera either follows her around or leans in close to scrutinise her face, watching unease bloom into dread, then dread rot into panic.
Bardem’s motives are often creepily opaque – all you have to go on is that grinning gravestone face – but Lawrence is up there emoting for the entire auditorium. And vitally, the film never sells her out: we’re there beside her, not leering from a distance.
In the agonising slow build of tension that ensues, boundaries both physical and psychological are breached. The couple sneak into Bardem’s study when he’s not around and accidentally smash his crystal into splinters. But they also pry into the couple’s personal lives: Pfeiffer nags and teases Lawrence for not yet having children while sipping boozy lemonade.
Soon enough, the couple are joined by their sons (brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), things rapidly escalate, then momentarily die down, then turn symphonically berserk. Yet even as the visitors’ numbers increase, their infractions are often fairly minor at first: they just mount up with a water-torture steadiness that has you writhing with discomfort, and which makes the end, when it finally arrives with bangs and whimpers to spare, just feel like a natural progression.
A sick joke, an urgent warning and a roar into the abyss, Mother! earns its exclamation mark but no more than that.