Art cinema and genre film are often regarded as opposite ends of the movie spectrum. One flaunts filmmaking rules, the other depends on them. When they are blended, the result can be confusing, challenging, and very refreshing. The film Mother! (2017) is an example of a filmmaker deliberately provoking audiences with a multi-genre exploration that defies labelling. Calling this a horror drama does not even come close to describing the way it ramps up from a story of domestic abuse to home invasion, demonic possession, messianic madness, and then explodes into a supernatural fantasy of biblical proportions. Be prepared for a wild ride.
Talking of plot wrongly implies that the film’s narrative is based on logical progression whereas it feels more like a never-ending nightmare. It’s held together by imagination not logic. We meet an unnamed couple in a sprawling isolated country mansion: Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young home decorator, and Him (Xavier Bardem) a famous poet whose writing has, like their sex life, dried up. One evening, two people arrive unexpectedly: Man (Ed Harris) is followed later by Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and soon the couple are making themselves at home, much to Mother’s discomfort. More people arrive and violence erupts among the strangers. The house is cleared, the sex life and poetry resumes, and fame returns. People line up to hear Him speak and the crowds keep getting bigger. Mother becomes a captive in her own house as her tummy swells with new life while the crowds spill into every room. They revere the ground on which Him walks, hang off Him’s every word, and souvenir anything they can carry while she is in fixated panic at the disintegration of her world. The crowd’s adoration turns to greed, then carnage, while Mother gives birth in a full-scale war zone compressed into a house. The new life is shared among the hordes as the apocalypse descends. It’s totally crazy.
The originality, absurdism, and audacity of this film are breathtaking. It makes more sense if viewed as a montage of interconnected visual metaphors, loosely assembled according to taste. There are clues that help decode its possibilities. For example, being nameless renders the cast into avatars for universal stereotypes, so the film is not just about a house full of people. History is littered with belief systems and their damage to humanity, while the birth in this film is Mothers’ single unifying power that is ripped from her arms in an horrific Biblical allusion to the ‘feeding of the masses’. The score is virtually non-existent, allowing natural sounds free reign to create a mood of Gothic claustrophobia. The camerawork pulsates with handheld rhythms and variable depth of field that isolate different planes of psychological and physical reality. The frequent camera close-ups on Mother’s face or over her shoulder foregrounds her viewpoint which makes this a feminist experience of a ‘man’s world’. The casting is perfect. Jennifer Lawrence’s youthful Madonna face becomes a powerhouse of depicted terror while Xavier Bardem’s turns into a stencilled visage of divinity, a self-absorbed messiah.
Whatever else it may be, this film is also a masterpiece of political and religious satire. Completely unbounded, it can be taken as a weird horror film or read as a meditation on gendered existentialism or an absurdist parody on the saviours that arise in every society throughout history. It is also completely here and now: when Him survives the dystopian chaos that he has created, ask yourself: who does he remind you of?
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Xavier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris