' ' Cinema Romantico: mother!

Monday, October 02, 2017


“Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland.” – Dave Barry

Jesus’s parables were short and sweet. That’s not simply because the Nazarene had a point to make but because he knew what point to make and he knew that making it concisely rather than blowing it out to 11 was the most effective means of communication. Darren Aronofsky, on the other hand, is more of a maximalist, like 2014’s “Noah” in which he re-dressed the Biblical parable of The Great Flood with myriad flourishes that gleefully ignored theology. That was nothing compared to “mother!”, which cribs even more from Genesis only to then counteract Creationism with Environmentalism while also delving deep into the reaches of his own (pseudo) tortured artist soul, three allegories that Aronofsky runs on three separate tracks that all meet in the end where the entire thing goes up in a ball of flames, not so much straining to find meaning as forcing so much inchoate “meaning” down our throats that it all merely becomes a morass of meaningless.

The movie’s whole enchilada aesthetic is evoked in the character names, which are not names but convenient catch-alls like Mother, Him, Man, Woman. It doesn’t take long to see why. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem) live in a sizable, circular fixer-upper in the middle of nowhere with no glimpse of the outside world. In the early-going, Mother mentions her wish to re-fashion this ramshackle home as “paradise”, which isn’t any ol’ paradise but Eden, evoked when Man (Ed Harris) shows up and then, not long after, is joined by Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). She quickly causes trouble, mucking up Eden, and that’s before their sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) arrive, who argue a lot before the oldest slays the youngest.

The allegory is obvious, but here, more than everywhere else, Aronofsky demonstrates tonal control, re-fashioning Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel as a kind of drawing room farce involving an increasingly bizarre invasion of the in-laws. That invasion is comically, frightfully evoked in Pfeiffer’s fine performance, imagining the first woman as a Joan Crawford character putting on a cocktail party where there isn’t one. If that sounds blasphemous, it’s actually hilarious, maybe as close as Aronofsky has ever come to pure comedy. Pfeiffer, however, who drives much of it, is the lone actor not merely existing as clay for the director to mold but playing to something.

This is a trick Lawrence cannot pull, underscored by how the camera is frequently placed just over her shoulder, seeing who she is looking at, yes, but eliciting the sensation of Aronofsky hovering and shaping the performance himself. When the shots flip, you never see her over the shoulder of someone else; no, she is in close-up, as if every inch of her visage being scrutinized from an editing bay. Lawrence has shown an ability to ground absurdity before, like the first “Hunger Games”, where its gameshow aesthetics fails to stifle her authenticity, but here she is hung out to dry, firmly in the foreground of so many frames yet somehow still invisible because she is so obviously representative rather than real.

In a way, that feeds into storyline of Him as a revered poet who is, as he must be, struggling with writer’s block, which is cured when he impregnates Mother, though its cure leads to new, and apparently incredible, poetry that then brings legions of his fans to his steps and through the front door, where they proceed to run roughshod over Mother’s beloved house right as she is about to give birth, mixing and matching the ideas of an artist as God using and abusing his muse as well as interlopers using and abusing Mother Earth.

That it goes off the rails idown the stretch is because Aronofsky intends to run it right off the rails, to pull at the multiple allegorical strands he dangles throughout and then deliberately refuse to tie these strands together. But because he doesn’t tie them together he deadens the impact of his concluding shock value whirlwind, rendering it all empty overkill. The main character of “Black Swan” went off the rails too, but the film itself remained firmly in control of its artist-willing-to-die-for-her-art allegory. You wind up inside “Black Swan”, so to speak, whereas with “mother!” you remain on the outside looking in, ponderously scratching your chin rather than clutching your temples in ecstatic agony.

Aronofsky has called “mother!” dream logic which isn’t quite right, because dream logic stipulates that it all makes sense in the dream and none outside of it. Movies mostly are waking dreams, spells that have been cast, but in “mother!” Aronofsky hurls so much crap at you that it not only fails to work in concert, it overloads your senses and breaks the spell, leaving you with nothing but a bunch of ruminative delay action bombs set to detonate post-screening at the mandatory class discussion. “mother!” is merely philosophical Play-Doh, a senior thesis written for the screen. What’s the point? The point is whatever you want it to be! It’s climate change! It’s “Rosemary’s Baby”! It’s “Haunted Honeymoon”! It’s “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”! It’s Beatlemania! It’s Jennifer Lawrence as Rachel Weisz, who I imagine watching this allegorical free-for-all and thinking, “God, I’m so glad to be done with all that.” Me? I think “mother!” is the Republic of Ireland.


Derek Armstrong said...

Although I disagree with you on the value the film has, everything else is stated so brilliantly that I can't help but be compelled by the case you're making. Damn you, I now like this movie slightly less. It's been too long since I've stopped by for a dose of one of my favorite writers (you, not Him). Love that Dave Barry quote too.

Nick Prigge said...

Awwwww, that's a sweet comment. Thank you. I'm always happy when you stop by! I'm open to opposing arguments, of course, and would be interested to hear, or read, about where you think its value lies. I've heard people say the mere fact it exists in the current Hollywood climate is something to celebrate, but I'm not sure I can quite get there.

(I've always wanted to use that Dave Barry quote for something. It's rattled around in my head for years.)