Darren Aronofsky’s surreal horror farce, “mother!”, has been the most talked-about, shouted-about, booed-about and cheered-about film at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The boos and cheers began as the end credits rolled, and critics took to social media minutes later to call it the most astounding, traumatising and mind-bending experience of their lives – or else a load of self-indulgent tosh. To me, it seemed to be somewhere in between, although it’s undeniable that Aronofsky, the director of “Black Swan”, “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for a Dream”, has been uncompromising in putting his own vision on screen, for better or worse.
“mother!” is also a film of two halves, and the first half is a lot more intriguing than the second. Almost all of it takes place within the confines of a spacious, attractive but creaky wooden house surrounded by meadows and trees. The house was gutted by a fire a few years earlier, but an unnamed young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) has nearly finished renovating and redecorating it, much to the delight of her unnamed not-so-young husband (Javier Bardem), a famous poet. Their life is blissful – except that it isn’t. Throughout the film, the camera stays close enough to the woman that it almost bumps into her, so she seems to be trapped at all times. The landscape’s eerie silence, meanwhile, is emphasised by the lack of music on the soundtrack. Clearly, the woman will soon have something more to worry about than what colour to paint the cornices.
Her unease intensifies when a grinning stranger (Ed Harris) knocks on the door late one night, mistaking the house for a bed and breakfast. She wants to send him away, but, well, he has a lingering cough and he claims to be a doctor, so she doesn’t complain when her husband invites him to stay. She doesn’t even object when they start knocking back whiskey together, and these two leathery older men suddenly seem to have a closer connection than the poet has with his fresh-faced bride. But the next morning, the stranger’s wife (an amusingly bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives out of nowhere - and an invitation is extended to her, too. And then the couple’s sons knock on the door. And then...
As the number of visitors grows, what’s ingenious about “mother!” is that its heroine isn’t being threatened - not overtly, anyway. Maybe the strangers’ ravenous kisses are a bit inappropriate, and maybe their remarks are a bit tactless, and maybe the woman’s husband is a bit thoughtless, but there is no indisputable reason to throw out her unwanted guests. Nonetheless, there is a creeping sense that she is losing control of her home and her life – and maybe her sanity. What is the yellow powder she keeps in the bathroom cabinet? And why are fleshy wounds opening between the floorboards? Could her fear is a product of her own paranoia? Or could she be in purgatory, or even an alien world? In the few exterior shots, after all, the house looks as if a flying saucer has been disguised by a mass of porches and gables.
For an hour, none of these questions is answered, but “mother!” is nicely puzzling and cruelly funny: “Rebecca” remade by Lars von Trier, with some help from David Cronenberg. Anyone who has ever thrown a party that lasted too long will wince at Aronofsky’s spine-tingling caricature of their own anxieties. But then comes the film’s second hour – and the mystery evaporates. I won’t say too much about what happens, but the situation beomes wilder and more extreme, while the meaning of it all becomes plainer and more prosaic: at bottom, the film is a celebrity satire about a husband who is so fixated on his writing career that he has no time for his lovely wife. It doesn’t matter how devoted she is, or how monstrous his depredatory fans are, his ego needs them more than it needs her. And that’s it. Events in the house spiral into riotous apocalyptic chaos – I was reminded of a Hieronymus Bosch painting and an episode of “The Young Ones” – but the message doesn’t get any deeper. Fame-chasing men are very bad, home-making women are very good.
This isn’t the first time that Aronofksy has a male anti-hero choosing prestige over family, however destructive that choice may be. In his Old Testament action movie, “Noah”, the Patriarch almost slaughters his own grandchildren for the sake of his glorious mission, and in “The Wrestler”, Randy “The Ram” Robinson wrecks his life, and possibly ends it, because he would rather be with a crowd of admirers than with his daughter.
But considering that Aronofsky is a fabulously successful writer, as Bardem’s character is, “mother!” comes across as an especially personal take on the subject. It’s hard not to read it as a grandiose mea culpa, which makes it both self-flagellating and self-aggrandising. In effect, he is apologising to any relatives he may have neglected due to being a revered creative genius. But he isn’t saying much to the rest of us – assuming we aren’t married to revered creative geniuses ourselves.
That’s the trouble with films about narcissistic artists. They always seem to have been made by narcissistic artists, too.