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mother!: Darren Aronofsky’s surrealist parable dividing the critics

At its premiere at the 74th Venice Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, simultaneously received both rapturous applause and boos from the audience. The response from critics and audiences alike has echoed that initial response: split between gushing praise and, at times, violent criticism. It is not hard to see why: this allegorical tale of a nameless couple whose house is broken down by the presence of others forces us all to analyse our own short-sighted approach to the world we live in.

The film opens with the eponymous ‘mother,’ played by Jennifer Lawrence, waking in the surroundings of her idyllic, isolated house. She lives there with her much-older husband, ‘the Poet,’ (Javier Bardem) who is struggling for inspiration in his writing. The house, completely redecorated by Lawrence’s character, is Eden-like in its seclusion, only broken by Ed Harris’ ‘Stranger,’ who arrives at the house unbidden, in the belief it is a boarding house. After his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, followed by their two children, the house starts filling up with people, who minute after agonising minute, abuse the home that ‘mother’ has lovingly created. The couple, who have been struggling to conceive a child, eventually do so, which brings about a flood of creativity in the ‘Poet,’ in turn bringing more adoring fans into their space, with dire consequences.

We become the subject of a harsh and timely indictment on the wasteful society we have created

Although the film has a number of strong performances, in her role as ‘mother,’ Jennifer Lawrence absolutely shines, turning in arguably her best performance since Winter’s Bone. With the camera focussed on her face, Lawrence shows every twist of the film, along with a sense of femininity which connotes her dual role: she wishes to provide for the guests who enter the house, while simultaneously feeling violated by their very presence. This is Jennifer Lawrence at her very best – empathetic and real within a tempest of surrealistic horror.

The film’s religious symbolism is rich and varied, however, arguably more appropriate is the perception of Lawrence’s character as a metaphor for ‘Mother Earth,’ who aims to create the perfect home for her husband. However, we, like the Stranger, continually ignore the warnings from our environment and wander blindly into disaster. This is seen at its clearest with the motif of the cigarettes – despite the Stranger’s heavy cough, and warnings from the Mother not to smoke in the house, we continue regardless, causing the symptoms that we so badly suffer from. The unwelcome guests’ exploitation of the house must be seen as a parable – we should see ourselves in the same way and recognise that we can no longer continue without the prospect of total destruction.

So – why don’t people like this film? Cinemascore, which polls people as they leave the cinema, gave it an F, its lowest possible score. It is certainly arguable that the film is violent, perhaps gratuitously so, but a bigger problem is that the film’s marketing has been vastly divergent from the film itself. If you watch the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is merely another home-invasion horror. This gulf between expectation and reality among audiences going to the film is certainly a factor in the divided response to this cautionary tale.

However, the most potent reason for mother!’s negative backlash is this: it instructs us to look, long and hard, at ourselves. In a film with no real hero, but many villains, we become the subject of a harsh and timely indictment on the wasteful society we have created, and Aronofsky’s reflection on it through such a visceral lens was always bound to cause such huge controversy.

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