Mother!, Venice Film Festival review: Jennifer Lawrence suffers for her art in self-indulgent fable

Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature is a turgid surrealist slog, open to being read in many ways, but very heavy going however you approach it

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 06 September 2017 10:27
Lawrence (above, with Javier Bardem)  isn’t given a large amount of dialogue but she is on screen almost the entire time
Lawrence (above, with Javier Bardem) isn’t given a large amount of dialogue but she is on screen almost the entire time

Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 120 mins, starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson

Jennifer Lawrence may have been lost in space in her last feature Passengers but that is nothing to what the Oscar-winning actress endures in Mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature is a turgid surrealist fable, open to being read in many different ways but very heavy going however you approach it. From Winter’s Bone to The Hunger Games, Lawrence has always shown plenty of gumption in demanding roles. She is made to suffer again here.

Her performance is courageous but her character’s indignant disbelief about the predicament in which she finds herself is likely to be matched by audiences’ frustration at the random turns the storyline takes.

Lawrence plays “Mother”, a young woman living in a house in the country together with her much older husband, the “Poet” (Javier Bardem). They are cut off from the world, spending their days in Edenic isolation.

There are self-consciously lyrical shots which could have been lifted straight from mystical Russian director’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. When Mother, dressed in best vestal, see-through white, opens the front door, we’re confronted with images of rolling fields which seem to go on forever.

Mother is busy with the DIY. Poet is trying to work but has a monumental case of writer’s block which looks as if it has already lasted for years. Her peace is shattered when a stranger (Ed Harris) turns up. He’s an academic type who appears to be a big fan of Poet’s work.

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Mother! - Trailer

He is also a chain smoker with a wracking cough who shows no respect at all for the couple’s privacy. Poet welcomes the company. Mother is very disturbed by his presence. Her discomfort increases even further when the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up in the house and begins to treat it as if it is her own.

Pfeiffer gives a very enjoyable performance as a jaded and glamorous older woman. She is tactless about the age difference between Poet and Mother and disarmingly frank about everything from her sex life and her drinking to why her reluctant hosts haven’t got around to having kids yet. She is also very nosy. There is some strange link between the couple and the Poet which Mother can’t work out.

In these early stages, the film appears to be shaping up as one of those Bunuel-like satires about the hideous behaviour of the bourgeoisie. These are educated, affluent people and yet their actions have an animalistic quality. Poet is devastated by the destruction of a precious glass ornament kept in his study which is apparently the only object he salvaged from a huge fire.

Lawrence isn’t given a large amount of dialogue but she is on screen almost the entire time. Aronofksy films her face in huge close-up, registering every frown, grimace and shudder as she tries and fails to make sense of what is going on around her. She wants to be hospitable but she is also fiercely protective of her privacy.

There are heavy-handed hints she is having some kind of nervous breakdown and that the film might be her nightmare. (She is every bit as on edge as Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion.) The most banal domestic tasks, cooking or putting on the washing machine, become ordeals. As in far more conventional horror flicks, walls and floors seem to come alive.

The entire story is set within the house but this is no chamber piece. It soon develops into an apocalyptic mini-epic. There is family feuding and fratricide. On the floor, there’s a bloody spot that won’t be washed away. When one young man dies, the wake is held in the home. Mother’s pregnancy is portrayed in hallucinatory and phantasmagoric fashion.

Poet may protest from time to time how much he loves Mother but he is really much more concerned with his own work as a writer. He welcomes the hordes of visitors that she so detests. In no time at all, we’re taken from a wake to a christening party. The Poet’s publisher turns up.

The house is taken over by hedonistic partygoers who don’t respect the furniture at all. Then, the cops and the paramilitary pitch up. Death and destruction are brought into the world. Mother’s Eden is very soon lost.

Aronofksy shows plenty of visual flair. If you wanted someone to depict the rise and fall of humanity in an afternoon or to dramatise the Book of Revelations in your living room, he’d probably be the director you’d choose.

That, though, doesn’t excuse the self-indulgence and mounting silliness of the filmmaking here. Lawrence gives a very brave performance but it’s ultimately in a losing cause. “Get them out of the house!” she implores again and again as the armies of strangers try to make themselves at home. You can fully understand her exasperation.

Mother! hits UK cinemas 15 September.

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