“I turn aside with a shudder of horror from this lamentable plague of functions which have no derivatives.”
Joshua Moulinie takes an in-depth look at Darren Aronofsky’s mother! as part of STORGY’s Basement of Horrors. It’s the last full week before Halloween, so we’re hoping to send some shivers down your spine with reviews, play throughs and retrospectives leading up to the 31st. This video is a shortened version of the full review. Check out Joshua’s whole review of mother! at STORGY.com Check back with us tomorrow where Tony and Charlotte will be playing Amnesia!
2017 has been a mostly stagnant year for cinema; devoid of any true standouts, most efforts have been decent at best, in a scene dominated by franchises and sequels, being choked under the hefty hands of corporate profit. Until recently, we were yet to have the first standout film driven more by art than profits to hit mainstream British cinemas; then, from the darkness, came a unique vision, as Aranofsky made a step back from the larger scale of Noah to the smaller, independent projects he is known best for. With talent like Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem and Ed Harris involved, high hopes were had; and the film, while somewhat puzzling and ambiguous, delivers an atmospheric tour-de-force.
The film acts as an allegory for the story of creation, told via the guise of domestic relationship. Bardem’s The Poet is a stand-in for God; The narcissistic who creates first Earth (The Mother) before Man. Man who would then go on to abuse the Earth while worshipping the creator, in reaction the Earth loses faith in God, and everything eventually culminates in a last act of pure insanity, as man eventually causes the entire collapse of creation, and the cycle begins anew. The key to understanding, and ultimately enjoying Mother! is to figure out this central metaphor. Once you do, everything you’ve seen makes a lot more sense, and suddenly the crushing atmosphere and imagery has a very real and poignant point to it.
The film is extremely metaphorical, and to explain too much would be to ruin it. This is a thinking man’s film, designed to be examined and unpacked. The sort of film that burrows into your subconscious, and refuses to leave. Whilst I’ve given away the central metaphor, which I somewhat regret doing but felt was necessary, due to the controversy and swarm of people referring to it as ‘incomprehensible’ which, of course, is nonsense, I have still left a significant amount untold. I would normally say it’s best to go in completely blind, and it indeed is; yet, seemingly, the mainstream public have been unable to do so, and I felt it necessary to explain the crux of the story, hopefully to avoid future freak-outs.
The film begins relatively slowly, with a crushing sense of ambiguity, isolation, and claustrophobia; building a slow mystery that reveals effectively nothing, before turning a switch in the final act and delivering one of the most insane, yet endlessly entertaining, final acts in the history of mainstream cinema. The incredible escalation, the amount of ‘Did that just happen?’ moments is utterly mind-blowing, and if you walk out before this sequence, you will be doing yourself an extreme disservice. This is achieved, mostly, through intellectually provocative writing; make no bones about it, this may be the best screenplay Aranofsky has ever worked from. It’s clever, it’s subtle, it’s everything you need from a screenplay for a good mystery, which, at it’s core, Mother! is.
The film carries itself with a dream-like atmosphere, comparable to Dario Agento or David Lynch (Two of my favourite film-makers, incidentally enough); time is distorted, often ignored, and scenes seem to skip over entire periods, moving with a pace that makes no sense within what we perceive as reality. It all feels entirely deliberate, designed to disorientate and bewilder, creating an ambient experience that keeps you bemused and amused until the very end. Perhaps it is this, alongside THAT scene (which we will get to later), that has caused the mainstream audience to switch off. Perhaps we are now so conditioned to traditional sequential storytelling that something with this sheer artistic audacity was too much for the popcorn crowd to swallow. It is, funnily enough, the same issues Twin Peaks:The Return ran into. Simply put, we are, artistically speaking, the most dumbed-down we have ever been as a society. We demand simple entertainment and refuse to think. Films like Mother!, unfortunately, may well go the way of the dinosaurs before too long.
I compared Mother! To a dream, in terms of the way it feels, yet, a more appropriate term would be a nightmare. If, like me, you are somewhat anti-social and agoraphobic, the way the story unfolds, as more and more faces flood into the house, worshipping the narcissistic poet, and things become relentlessly crowded, the situation ever-worsening around her, then this will make you incredibly uncomfortable. I found myself continuously shifting in my seat, thinking ‘Dear God, that’s my worst nightmare.’ It works not only on a metaphorical level, but on a more literal one as well, which is, for me, usually the sign of a wonderful film.
The message about religion, the narcissism of God, the absurdity of the cult like following of Christianity, is well executed, yet doomed to controversy and hatred. It makes a clear and distinct point; and a very valid one. Christianity and the customs are, to some, baffling, and God is a narcissist. Only a narcissist would possibly demand you worship them every weekend, and flood the entire Earth when he doesn’t get the worshipping he wants. That Aranofsky had the balls to do this on a large scale is commendable, but perhaps somewhat suicidal, particularly in America, a country not exactly known for being tolerant to criticisms of Christianity. I can’t even imagine how it would have gone in Italy.
It also says a lot about humanity, and our neglect of the natural world while worshipping supposed higher powers, told via the clever guise of a relationship conundrum. It’s subtle enough to not feel patronising, yet enough clues are given to figure it out, thanks to the stellar writing. It is a fascinating and intriguing point, if not exactly a new one, that has a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of religious worship…so naturally everyone’s focused on a singular scene taken out of context, because people will always be people.
While the criticism is frustrating, it is completely understandable. In taking one of Christianity’s central symbols – the eating of the body of Christ – and depicting it in a literal sense, they may have pushed things too far for the general public to handle. Art, in my opinion, should know no boundaries, and, so long as a genuine point is being made, and it isn’t violence for violence sake, nothing is too far. However, not all share my opinion, and the hate for the film proves this. Though I would argue disgust has nothing to do with quality, and personal tastes being upset do not a bad film make. It has a powerful, poignant message, and should be applauded for having the sheer testicular fortitude to take such risks.
It is also perhaps a sad reflection of us, the audience, and people in general, that one scene of an infant being murdered would cause us to have a breakdown on such a massive scale. We see films all the time that focus on taboo and disgusting themes; rape, murder, drug abuse. We’ve become conditioned to not be particularly bothered by this; in fact, in films such as Friday The 13th, we actively root for the murder of innocent teenagers, getting a sick delight out of seeing them dismembered viscerally. Yet, kill a single baby, and the whole world screams out in disgust. Frankly, it’s a double standard; as anybody with intelligence and rationality knows a babies life is no more valuable than that of a teenager. Yet, we root for the death of one, and crucify a film (pun intended), for the death of another. As far as I’m concerned, there is no controversy here. We’ve created the controversy, as per usual, via our hypocrisy.
Visually, it’s classic Aranofsky, delivering what is effectively a polished version of the Dogme style populated by Von Trier and Vinterberg. Mostly handheld and close-ups, creating a sense of instability, discomfort and claustrophobia, while simultaneously looking like a polished production. Nothing spectacular, yet effective in conveying the intended atmosphere, with the occasional breathtaking shot thrown in for balance. The score, unfortunately, is not memorable, though not terrible either. Simply there, effective during the duration, but forgotten as soon as the credits role.
Bardem and Lawrence are fantastic as the central pillars of the film, both executing their roles with maturity and complete control. Bardem as the detached narcissist, trading in his humanity as his fame grows and his ego with it. His cold, emotionless eyes are, at times, quite disconcerting, and he once again shines as one of the finest performers in Hollywood today. Lawrence goes a long way towards shedding her image as the darling child of commercial crap, and puts in a performance we see too rarely from her. Emotionally vulnerable at first, yet growing in strength as the narrative progresses, it is a career-defining performance that may well be her best. If she could stick to more challenging roles like this, and leave the popcorn nonsense alone, she could well go down as a great. Michelle Pfeiffer is also wonderfully cold and bitchy, and a delight throughout.
The film is not perfect, no film is, but flaws are hard to pick out in this instance. Perhaps one could argue it did indeed go too far with a particular scene, and it has certainly harmed the public perception of a great work, but I feel strongly the film deserves no criticism for this. If the aim of art is to provoke discussion, it has done just that, while also revealing something about ourselves. It, perhaps, could have been slightly better paced; the end sequence is absolutely spectacular, but the beginning does take a while to get moving, with the atmosphere taking time to settle.
Still, an incredible watch by a director who stands among Hollywood’s greats. Artistically driven with a point to make, refusing to shy away from undertaking the necessary steps to drive that point home, this is bold and brave film-making from a true visionary director. Featuring a stellar cast and looking beautiful, this is an incredible piece of work that provides 2017 with the shot in the arm it so desperately needed. Cinema is dying. While companies such as Disney, and franchises such as The Fast and The Furious continue to turn over ridiculous sums, so the financial side of Hollywood stands firm, pure cinema is upon its knees. We need films like this, brave and visionary films that remind us what cinema can truly be when allowed; not just a product designed for mass entertainment and corporate gain, but an art-form used for expression. I can only hope that the criticism and controversy does not panic studios into vetoing future works such as this one, but I will not be holding my breath for a positive outcome. Cinema is dying. We need to save her.
Tune in tomorrow for STORGY’S Basement of Horror feature on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
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