Or, Department of Heavy-Handed Mixed Metaphors.
Watching this trainwreck of a movie, I could not help but think of Rosemary’s Baby, from which it borrows many ideas, liberally and clumsily. Here too we have an egotistical creative husband (Javier Bardem, trying his heroic best not to be as absurd as his character). He’s married to a blonde sweetheart of a woman, Jennifer Lawrence, in one of the most egregious feats of miscasting mankind has ever known.
As John Cassavetes before him (physically, Bardem and Lawrence are Cassavetes and Mia Farrow on steroids), Bardem is completely self-involved and oblivious to his wife’s emotional needs. She is building their nest, a hexagonal house in the middle of a field. There is no driveway.
Nosy people appear, in the welcome shape of Ed Harris, and the spectacularly brittle Michelle Pfeiffer, just like Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer before them. All kinds of strange shenanigans start taking place. Here too a fear/desire of pregnancy emerges, as well as the notion, which in Roman Polanski’s gifted hands is a masterpiece of dark humor and dread, that hell is other people.
Unfortunately, all resemblance to Polanski’s movie stops there, because to say that writer-director Darren Aronofsky is heavy-handed is understating the issue. Apparently, he has never met a metaphor he didn’t like, so the salad of symbolism dooms the movie to camp: the house as a living organism, the sacrifice of the homemaker, fear of pregnancy, male impotence, the destructiveness of ego and celebrity, Cain and Abel, you name it. You confirm you were in trouble when the characters are listed in the end credits as “Mother”, “Him”, “Man” and “Woman”. This movie deserves the Mystery Science 3000 treatment.
Everything is shot by Matthew Libatique to resemble a dreamlike state, and I’d be fine with this if, as in any truly creepy psychological horror film, such as Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Repulsion, or Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, the disquiet came from our not knowing whether the horror is all in the character’s mind. But Aronofsky stacks the deck early on and dispenses with ambiguity. One look at Ed Harris and one knows nothing good can come from him, whereas the Castevet neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby really make you wonder whether they mean well or they are direct emissaries of Satan. All the fun and the fear lie in not knowing for sure.
Aronofsky wants to tell an allegory, but it seems to me that, at least in film, allegory is most effective when it is rooted in reality. That’s when it messes most with our heads. I’m thinking of allegorical movies that work not only because they are set in reality, but also because they stick to one theme. Movies like Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves (love is sacrifice), Dogtooth (tyranny), by Yorgos Lanthimos, and The Teacher (abuse of power and corruption), by Jan Hrebejk. They are all set in very concrete places, from an oil rig in the North Sea to a modern house in Greece, to a school in communist Czechoslovakia. These movies use realistic detail to bring the psychological aspect into stark relief. By happening in a real context they signal to the audience that this could happen to us.
In contrast, in mother! (or Von Trier’s labored allegories like Dogville and Antichrist) in which everything is dreamlike, it reads as artificial. There is no tension between the outside reality and the reality of the mind. We can’t really connect to characters that are symbols. It’s just a freak show.
During the first third and best part of the movie, Aronofsky manages a mounting feeling of powerlessness and absurdity as strangers take over Mother’s house with the acquiescence of her husband, who loves to be fawned upon. The movie comes alive when Ed Harris and especially Michelle Pfeiffer show up (she’s the best thing in the movie, and the only person with a sense of humor). But even their story spins out of control as it becomes clear that they represent the aged marriage, with kids, bitterness and some homicidal silliness about an inheritance.
The problem with heavy-handed symbolism is that the writer thinks the audience is going to feel smart by making the connections but, 1. they are labored, obvious and vulgar, 2. not one iota of believable feeling or attraction transpires between the characters. None of them are real people, except for Michelle Pfeiffer, who should be given an Oscar purely on account of how she delivers the line “have a baby”.
I once was almost driven to a nervous breakdown by one such guest who invaded my home and rendered it inhabitable by the sheer force of her malignant personality. I remember opening the fridge and not recognizing anything in there — instead of a warm and generous presence, the food inside seemed a reproach. To this day I cannot describe how this person managed to propel me to the edge of a meltdown, but the feeling is of an alternate reality from which you are shut out, even on your own turf. This is a wonderful feeling to depict in a movie, and Aronofsky sustains it for about half an hour. Unfortunately, he decides to relinquish all self-control, and the movie spirals into cheesy absurdity.
Now, what can be more irrelevant, unbelievable and absurd in a movie than a poet? Why, a poet that has crippling writer’s block (pathetic echoes of The Shining) and attempts to scribble pearls of wisdom in what looks like parchment paper. At the height of ridiculousness, he gets a flash of inspiration and clamors for a pen (while naked)! He apparently drives people to a frenzy with his words, which I assume to be a cross between Paulo Coelho and a Hallmark card, but which we are left to imagine since Aronofsky pulls the laziest trick in the book, which is that he knows full well that no one could write anything that could unleash such orgiastic chaos, so we’ll never know if he’s better than Shakespeare or is writing Jonathan Livingston Seagull II. We are left to trust that Bardem is a poet who changes people’s lives because he pontificates new age mumbo jumbo at them.
I could believe the frenzy he provokes had he been a rock star, a musician, an actor, a sports hero, a Kardashian, or some Silicon Valley ghoul. But a poet? Give me a break! This is the kind of putrid stereotype about writers that makes people fear and distrust writing and writers. In fact, this is the kind of movie that makes people fear and distrust art.
Bardem’s poet offended me almost as much as the casting of the usually wondrous Jennifer Lawrence as his cipher of a wife. Lawrence is an actress of spunk and gumption, so it is impossible for her to be without a spark, hard as Aronofsky tries. The movie consists mostly of her in close-up, and she’s good and honest enough an actress to withstand the scrutiny, but Aronofsky gives her nothing to do but be afraid, cry, recede and ask stupid questions. No one is less interesting than a martyr.
One keeps praying that she will find the balls to confront her husband and all the unwanted guests, and that Lawrence will finally unleash her witty, fresh audacity, but her character represents the other tired trope of male fantasy: the understanding muse, the woman who blends into the walls so that the male genius might thrive. She is the homemaker, the female womb. She doesn’t have a job: she lives for him, to save him, to inspire him and to cook and clean and decorate. For a role like this, you do not get Jennifer Lawrence. Also, fuck this movie.
More offensive than the outrageous grand Guignol that follows, which sadly includes a baby, is the fact that after two hours of following her point of view, her abandonment, her disorientation, her feelings of being nothing, it turns out that everything is about HIM. Had this been orchestrated with some irony, it could have been a devastating satire on male self-importance. But I’m afraid that Aronofsky is dead serious.