VENICE, Italy — There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the exclamation point stood as a symbol of zest, of positivity. It was Andre 3000 chanting the chorus to “Hey Ya!” or Meryl Streep frolicking through the cobblestone streets of Mamma Mia!
That was then. Today it serves to accent the 140-character ravings of the U.S. president; a most violent cock’s crow. In mother!, the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, it comes laced with similar portent, and as the title credits roll, separates from its subject before both vanish into the ether. Are you scared yet? Well, how about an augury of death to top things off: the image of its star, Jennifer Lawrence, burning in flames. The message is clear: this is a film designed to fuck with you. And fuck with you it does.
Mother (Lawrence) awakens in a beautiful Victorian home in the remote countryside. She is a paragon of radiance, gliding around the creaky mansion in a body-hugging nightgown, but her husband Him (Javier Bardem) refuses her advances. He is a famous author consumed by writer’s block who hopes the isolation will set fire to his pen. Their quiet domesticity is interrupted by the arrival of Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), he a longtime admirer of Him’s work, she a boundary-pushing lush who hammers Mother with questions about her sex life and lack of children. “I want to make a paradise,” Mother says of her home, if the character names weren’t biblical enough for you.
The house also appears to be alive. When Mother puts her hand to the wall, she can feel the home’s heart beating. Bloodstains materialize on the floor. A human heart clogs the toilet. Is the house giving Mother her chest pains and ear-splitting tinnitus? A mysterious yellow elixir seems to make the noises go away. Him is certainly of no help, reveling in the company of their new guests while ignoring the pleas of his anguished wife.
mother! owes a great debt to The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s pioneering feminist work about a “hysterical” woman whose physician-husband confines her to a room in their home, driving her slowly insane via infantilization. (In addition to the yellow potion, Mother quite literally paints the walls yellow.) And like that short story, Aronofsky slyly conveys his subject’s gradual descent into madness at the hands of an ego-driven patriarch—the paranoia augmented by lensman Matthew Libatique’s suffocating shots and Lawrence’s gung ho performance.
Aronofsky has long taken a certain sadistic glee in following his exquisite female subjects to the depths of hell, whether it be Natalie Portman’s obsessive ballerina in Black Swan or Jennifer Connelly’s desperate druggie in Requiem for a Dream. But the torment brought upon Lawrence’s Mother is something else entirely. She is robbed of her voice, her agency, and ultimately her body as the hordes—Warring brothers! Starved sycophants! Kristen Wiig!—descend on her Eden, tearing it to pieces. It is a sickeningly glorious mess.
Unlike The Yellow Wallpaper—or Rosemary’s Baby, for that matter, another work exploring the gaslighting of a pregnant woman—Aronofsky’s film is ultimately concerned with the parasitic nature of the male artist; how he drains the lifeblood from all those around him in the name of creativity and ego fuel. In that sense, it’s a remarkably self-absorbed film, and one that, allegorical or not, feels like an agonized mea culpa from the artist (Aronofsky) to those in his personal orbit.
Then again, what piece of art isn’t?