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FNE at Venice 2017: Review: mother!

2017-09-06
Mother!, dir. Darren Aronofsky Mother!, dir. Darren Aronofsky

VENICE: Director Darren Aronofsky returns to the Lido with mother! in the main competition a film which he describes as having “poured out of him as a fevered dream.” The description is indeed apt and his vision has left both critics and Venice audiences a bit baffled as to what it all means, that is if it means anything at all.

The film is described as being a psychological thriller about love, devotion and sacrifice.  But it really plays out as more of an unhinged horror film that descends into hell with no explanation about why it is all happening.

The film starts out with a seemingly loving couple played by Jennifer Lawrence as “mother” and Javier Bardem as “Him” living in an isolated Victorian house cut off from the outside world. None of the characters in the film have names and “mother” and “Him” are all we ever learn of Lawrence’s and Bardem’s names throughout the film.  If Aronofsky has a reason for this unusual convention in connection with his characters’ names we never learn what it is.  Along with many other choices the director makes in this twisted tale.

Lawrence is the second wife of Bardem and she is renovating the house. Bardem is a popular poet and older than his wife.  He has suffered from writer’s block ever since the house burned down some time ago.  He lose everything he had along with his first wife in the fire.

In classic horror plot mode an unexpected stranger played by Ed Harris and dubbed “man” shows up at the house and despite looking like the kind of crazy you would not want to meet on the street Bardem welcomes “man” into the house and the two of them are soon the best of drinking buddies.  “Man” is soon followed by his wife “woman” an alcoholic character played with great zest by Michelle Pfeiffer who does everything an actress could do with this rather thin role. 

Lawrence is horrified at Bardem’s acceptance of these unknown guests and eventually prevails on her husband to throw them out.  But things have already started to become unhinged and the film descends into a hallucinatory hell of gory images that leaves the viewer reeling from one off-kilter shot to the next.

Hand-held camera work by Matthew Libatique aids and abets the action and the nightmare visions follow one after the other.

It might be that Aronofsky was trying to make a profound statement of some kind with this film.  In his director’s statement for the Venice catalogue he says “It is a mad time to be alive. As the world population nears 8 billion we face issues too serious to fathom: ecosystems collapse as we witness extinction at an unprecedented rate; migrant crises disrupt governments; a seemingly schizophrenic US helps broker a landmark climate treaty and months later withdraws; ancient tribal disputes and beliefs continue to drive war and division; the largest iceberg ever recorded breaks off an Antarctic ice shelf and drifts out to sea.”  He seems to be saying we live in a nightmare when things are collapsing all around us on our planet and we are behaving in an insane way.  But if that is the message of the film it is doubtful that the audience would figure it out if they had not read a treatise by the director on this before seeing the film.

Perhaps this is just the director’s vision of the chaos our world will descend into if we do not take action of bring sanity to the globe.  But it’s really difficult to know if there is anything deeper beneath the generous layers of gore or if it’s just gore.

mother! (USA)
Credits: Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig

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