Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence, is genius. Or crap

“Holy. Crap.” That’s the two-word review someone, somewhere, will surely give Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday after months of utter secrecy. This is a film so out there, so bold, so borderline insane that it practically begs the haters to hate.
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From the acclaimed director of Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream and Noah, Mother! is a mad, sprawling, wildly ambitious piece of work that is one long metaphor for ??? well, a whole bunch of things, including creativity, celebrity culture, religious mania, environmental degradation, the rise and fall of civilisation and, of course, motherhood. That the director and the star are romantically involved adds to the complexity, but explains none of it.

Is it holy? In parts, absolutely. Is it crap? I’m not so sure, though plenty of people will say so.

There have been reports already of raves and boos in Venice. That’s par for the course at the big international festivals – if there isn’t at least one film from a big-name auteur dividing audiences like that, it’s considered a dud year.

The first reviews have been similarly mixed. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman called it “a movie that’s about everything and nothing”. The Playlist called it “Aronofsky’s most bombastic, ludicrous and fabulous film”. In Vanity Fair, Guy Lodge said it was a “pained, deranged provocation” that makes “Black Swan look like an episode of Murder, She Wrote” before confessing “the longer I sit with Mother!, the more moved I am by its madness”.

It’s that kind of movie – even those who respond to it will struggle to find words to say exactly why they do so. Unless they hate it, in which case it’s easy. Holy. Crap.

I saw it in Melbourne at roughly the same time it was being unveiled in Venice. I had to sign a form at midday in which I pledged not to write anything about it – not even a tweet – until the embargo was lifted. At 5pm that day.

On the way into the cinema, that struck me as laughably mad. On the way out, it struck me as suitably inspired, a mildly lunatic directive that was of a piece with the movie itself. Logical, in an utterly illogical way. Or vice versa.

The story, if that’s the right word for it, goes something like this. A woman (Jennifer Lawrence, billed only as “mother”) lives in a massive Victorian mansion in the middle of a paddock, surrounded by forest, with her husband (Javier Bardem, billed as “Him”). It was his childhood home, but it burned down; now mother is painstakingly rebuilding it while her poet husband struggles with writer’s block.

One day, a visitor turns up (Ed Harris, “man”). He claims to be a doctor looking for lodgings, but he’s actually a rabid fan. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, “woman”), and others quickly follow. There is a murder, then a home invasion, and finally a descent into utter bloody chaos.

Through it all, the house seems to be alive. When mother leans against a wall, she can hear its heart beat. When blood is spilt, it seeps into, and from, the very fabric of the building.

Is it a haunted house film? The trailer would lead you to think so, and that would be only a little misleading. There are real echoes of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a masterful portrait of mental decay in an apartment that seems to turn on its female inhabitant (Catherine Deneuve). Much of Mother! is shot from mother’s point of view (echoes here of the superb Holocaust film Son of Saul), but it’s hard to escape the sense we’re being dragged inside the mind of a character whose perspective is far from reliable.

But there’s so much else going on here than mere madness. Haunted or otherwise, that house comes to stand as a symbol of civilisation itself, just as mother stands for all mothers, for Mary the blessed mother, for Mother Earth. Giver of life, protector, pawn and victim.

Him is the creator, the needy God craving the adoration of his acolytes, as blind to the needs of his family as he is sensitive to the wants of the world.

It’s a portrait of a marriage in decay, of a loving couple torn apart by new parenthood. It’s a madcap, surreal comedy, in the style of Luis Bunuel, of a bourgeoisie rendered impotent by its own good manners.

There is so much going on in Mother! that it is almost impossible to say what it is about, other than to say that like much of Aronofsky’s work it is about spirituality, human suffering, and a quest for purpose amid the chaos of existence.

It overflows with potential meanings. Hell, that exclamation mark alone will doubtless spawn a multitude of interpretations.

I’m not sure if that makes it a good movie, much less an enjoyable one. But does it make it the most interesting, and probably most divisive, film of the year? Holy crap, yes.

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