180: The Tenacity of mother!

Spurred by the release of Francis Lawrence’s tone-deaf spy thriller Red Sparrow, which numbly deploys sexual abuse and exploitation as just-another-plot-mechanic, it felt like time to revisit one of last year’s more divisive titles, one I increasingly feel I didn’t give a fair shake.

A little under six months ago I gave mother! a dismissive two star review, calling it “so much pretentious pap”. This off of the back of months of mysterious hype and a public screening that threatened to turn hostile. Darren Aronofsky has been promising to provoke us his entire career – funny that some of us were quite so surprised that he managed to again.

Though I’d dismissed mother! it remained on my mind. An itch I couldn’t scratch. Writing a review asks you to take a position, but I was starting to feel increasingly uncertain of mine. Though it had riled me, I started to concede that this was something I respected about it; that this was its intention and it had therefore been successful. And whether I liked it or not, there were things about it I had definitely been impressed by. Chief among these being Jennifer Lawrence.

Lawrence is centre stage in mother! as she is in Red Sparrow. Both roles suggest an actor going through a sort of rebirth; challenging herself in an attempt to redefine an image cast upon her by the media. When she first appeared on the scene and wooed indie critics with Winter’s Bone it was for her prowess and conviction as a performer. As Hollywood transformed her persona into gorgeous, glamorous A-list celebrity, the focus shifted away from this to increasingly shallow praise. With her commitment to YA blockbuster series The Hunger Games now behind her, it is as if Lawrence has something to prove; she’s not just here to walk the red carpets each winter.

When the Razzie Nominations were announced and Lawrence’s name was in the mix for mother! I was astonished. Risible as some may have found the film, surely there could be nothing but admiration for Lawrence’s involvement? Aronofsky purposefully shot the film so that, with only a few minor exceptions, every shot is either on her, following her, or directly from her P.O.V. She is therefore the emotional centre of every single scene of the film.

In a punishing role that asks a lot of her, Lawrence goes through an intense range of situations over the movie’s two hours. Granted, it becomes histrionic, but this is the range that Aronofsky’s extremely unconventional thriller exists in. It is not a naturalistic film. Rather, it is pitched as a sort of stress dream. It is tough, fevered. His characters are not standard ‘people’; rather they are gestalt composites. They have emotions, but they’re also symbolic and mutable. Lawrence’s character doesn’t have a name. That’s deliberate.

Back in September I took exception to Aronofsky’s heavy-handed religious allegory. The basic idea being that Lawrence’s character represents the notion of Mother Earth, that Javier Bardem is God, their house is our planet and that their visitors represent the human race. This reading suggests itself in the first hour, but becomes increasingly pronounced in the second as Aronofsky starts retelling the Bible through some jarring and brutal imagery. I took it as preachy and reductive, but I could have been more charitable.

I also didn’t credit the other examinations that are going on simultaneously. Red Sparrow uses the torture and humiliation of its main character as a plot point, exploiting it like so much misery-porn in service of the next bit. mother! similarly puts its focal character through the wringer, and again Lawrence is subjected to so much mental and physical abuse, but here it serves a purpose. Here it is part of the conversation that the film is having with the audience. Red Sparrow is largely blind to how retrograde its treatment of women is, chalking it up to cultural norms with a “whaddaya gonna do?” shrug. mother!, on the other hand, is commenting on it. It is a condemnation of chauvinism, of inconsiderate, unthinking men, of our long and violent history of patriarchy.

Both roles ask Lawrence to appear in some form of undress. It’s telling of her gumption and nerve that she has not performed scenes like this until now, but acquiesces for these particular films, in which any sense of titillation or glamour is wholeheartedly removed. If you find anything sexy about this particular sequence in mother! I would urge you to seek some form of therapy. Celebrity nude scenes still generate clickbait headlines. Lawrence’s choices in these films dare us to examine why. She owns these moments by staring back at us, criticising how such scenes are fetishised.

I’m not a religious person but I can respect an attempt to discuss religion from a humanitarian perspective. I’d also strongly like to believe I’m not a misogynist. Aronofsky’s approach to these topics is blunt, sure, but there’s a boldness to such provocation that I admire. I highly doubt I’ll be back in six months’ time to reassess the two stars I gave Red Sparrow precisely because it’s such a bland, functional experience. We bemoan modern mainstream cinema for offering little that challenges us, then when something does we cry, “No, not like that!”. Provocations shouldn’t be comfortable. That’s the point.

So Lawrence’s Razzie nomination is ridiculous, and so is Aronofsky’s. There’s enough passive cinema. Something this agitated ought to be celebrated and admired, even if it does rub you the wrong way. mother! gifts us a reason to have hearty conversation again about something we saw at a multiplex. Hell, even the arthouse rarely gets us this riled.

Finally, can we also talk for a minute about production design? mother! is set in one place; an octagonal country home resplendent with eight-sided imagery. This is not a location. You can’t go and find the mother!house. It was designed by scientists and mathematicians (the blu ray has an enlightening half hour ‘making-of’) so that, as much as possible, every room flows into another. This allows the set amazing versatility for cinematographer Matthew Libatique. His roving camera follows Lawrence in spirals that ascend and descend. This fluidity enhances the size of the space and makes the house feel like a maze. Or a gigantic, vulgar birdcage. It’s an exquisite creation that was built and destroyed three times over; twice on a sound stage and once on location. A lot of films in the last year have boasted exceptional design elements, but mother! has been overlooked in this regard. (This is one of the few times that a behind-the-scenes special feature has greatly enhanced my appreciation of the film in question.)

As you can surmise from the above, when mother! hit home release last month I bought it. I needed to scratch that itch. I needed to look at it again. The first time through it terrorises you a little. You don’t know its shape. You’re concerned with defining it. The second time, however, these anxieties are dissipated and you’re in a better position to appreciate what’s being presented. I’d wholeheartedly recommend a rewatch to anyone.

Not only would I now double the points I gave it back in September, but I’d have found space for it on my Best Of 2017 list. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t for everyone. But provocative art never is. It deserves more credit, and hopefully that’s what I’ve expressed here.

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