The film’s opening title scrawls the word “Mother’” across the screen, the “!” added as an afterthought. The script is handwritten, scrappy and artistic, the accompanying sound effect, sharp and abrasive. If such a perfect microcosm ever presented itself so early in another film, I can’t think of it.
Aronofsky’s latest film addresses themes that will likely never leave the arts: love and family, creation and consumption, public and private lives. It tells the story of a young woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence), and her older husband (Javier Bardem) who is a writer afflicted by creative block. Their countryside home is subjected to a series of visitors: first, a couple played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, and later others, who shatter Lawrence’s character’s ambitions of domestic paradise. The characters go unnamed, acting as cyphers for their dedicated roles rather than fleshed-out people, establishing an allegorical tone for the film as a whole.
As a filmic narrative, Mother! feels hard to digest. The events of the plot escalate chaotically: nine months of pregnancy pass in the blink of an eye, while developments that should have taken hours or days occur in minutes. At times, characters act in ways that serve the film thematically but make no sense at all when taken literally. The last scenes of the film show a descent into madness by guests and intruders at a pace that manages to be both hard to follow and overlong, the attention sprinting from room to room without giving the viewer time to work things out. With a little chewing we can get a better sense of the film and the ideas it is trying to present.
Underneath all the skin, however, it’s hard to find any meat to the film. It remains inconclusive about the merits or risks of life as an artist in the public view. One could draw a solid message about the devaluing of women’s labour from the film if it weren’t for a brief opening and closing scene which entirely undermines this suggestion. Even without these bookends, the women in the film fit so neatly into the “virgin, mother, whore” tropes that any claim of insight into women’s struggle in society is washed out.
Cinematically, Aronofsky has hit most of his marks. Shot on 16mm film, the movie has a grainy, nostalgic texture on screen. The lighting throughout is dark and warm -‒ on one hand cosy but also oppressive and clammy. Daylight is naturalistic but limited and enclosed given that the Mother and domestic anchor of the title, Lawrence, never leaves the house. As the building is damaged, she suffers.
Sound is also used effectively, particularly early on. Volume and pitch are ramped up, tearing at the eardrums and conveying the discomfort and anxiety of Lawrence’s focal character in a way that Aronofsky previously displayed expertly in The Life of Pi and Black Swan. The camera also sticks to Lawrence, at times following her in long tracking shots, while at others filling the screen with close-ups of her face, immersing the viewer in her emotional state. Fans of Lawrence will not complain about this, her performance is fine but failed to raise goosebumps for me.
In a third act that should have been highly distressing, the emotional impact of these sequences seems rather subsumed by forcing viewers into a critical mode with coded metaphors and such a baffling structure and pace. While the director’s attempts to delve into these classic themes sees a deep gaze and some sharp incisions, ‘Mother’ but ultimately comes out imperfect. Viewers should expect to leave rubbing their chins, and maybe wishing they’d rented Rosemary’s Baby instead.