What If God’s Wife’s One of Us: A Review of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Mother!’

mother!

There aren’t many relatable aspects to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, but it’s easy to relate to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At least in the beginning. She just wants to hang out in her beautiful house with her poet husband (Javier Bardem) but people just won’t leave her alone. One after the other, strangers show up in her doorstep, and the foolish poet invites them all in to stay in the house as long as they want, not caring about the fact that they’re all horrible house guests. They eat their food, are constantly rude, and basically destroy the house that the couple has built together. But like I said, that’s just the beginning. Things get crazier from there, until the woman’s peaceful world has turned into an inescapable nightmare.

The movie has been advertised as a horror in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, but the resemblance to that kind of story is only partial and superficial. Mother! is something much more grandiose and uncontrolled. The movie doesn’t really take place in any kind of reality. It is one big allegory that’s taken the shape of a fever-dream and doesn’t even try to adhere to the conventions of what a “good narrative” is supposed to be. It is more unsettling and disorienting than it is scary. In a sense, it is a horror movie, but for those movie goers who will go in expecting a psychological thriller and will surely try to get their money back once they realize what they’re actually watching.

Whether or not the movie is any good (I am on the fence about this subject myself), it is an achievement. I tip my hat to Aronofsky for somehow managing to get good money, and from a big Hollywood studio no less, to make such an aggressively uncommercial movie. If you’re the kind of person who finds the idea of jumping into a potentially unsatisfying but wholly unique journey into craziness enticing, then Mother! is definitely worth a watch. On that note, I would also suggest that you stop reading this review and go see it, because the rest of this review is where I explain what I understand Aronofsky’s allegory to be, and why the final reveal of the movie’s intensions left me disappointed. The best way to experience Mother! is to not know anything about it.

You have been warned.

I’m not here to psychoanalyze anybody, but I think Darren Aronofsky might still be working out some aspects of his divorce. The most basic way to explain the movie’s premise -Bardem focuses all his energy on his work and audience adulation, his wife suffers for it- makes it sound familiar. We’ve seen movies about geniuses and their tortured wives before. Aronofsky is just doing two things differently. First, he’s flipping the script, focusing on the inspiring muse rather than the artist. Second, he’s trying to explore this dynamic through the biggest most popular artistic genius in western culture: God. So, basically, the movie is about how it would really suck to be God’s wife.

Aronofsky is also an environmental activist, so Lawrence’s character -who is never referred to by name and is credited as “the mother”- has a strong mother earth vibe to her. Her main activity when the movie starts is remodel the house in which she lives. In her own words, she wants to “build paradise.” Meanwhile, her husband -the poet- writes. That’s until a man comes around (Ed Harris), and the poet invites him to stay with them. Shortly after, the man’s wife shows up (a magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer). Then their children, and so on… Not only are these people destroying the beautiful house she’s built, but the poet is more interested in the adoration of these strangers than his wife’s love. It all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s kind of my problem with it. Mother! seems to combine the personalities of two of Aronofsky’s most successful movies. It feels a lot like Black Swan in that it takes inspiration from the early work of Roman Polanski, and in that it is often exaggerated and silly in its approach to horror. Black Swan, however, is campier, less pretentious, and ultimately more fun to watch. On the other hand, the movie resembles Requiem for a Dream in that both movies take one idea (“drugs are bad” then, “god’s wife suffers” now) and make a whole movie out of it, relentlessly hammering the point home again and again. That’s why Mother! is best experienced unspoiled. Trying to figure out what’s going on gets the mind rolling, but once you piece the puzzle together, you are left with a very obvious answer. There’s not much to take away once you’ve cracked the metaphor.

That’s the risk of making a movie that is purposely obtuse about its themes, you just can’t manufacture profundity. Which is not to say that this is necessarily a bad movie. There is a lot of great filmmaking in service of this allegory. Arofnosky’s direction, especially towards the end, when the house has turned into a chaotic hellspace, is quite virtuosic. He sticks to Lawrence’s point of view, and moves us from room to room seamlessly. It’s all very disorienting, with only the sound design there to guide us. The result is overwhelming, and often unpleasant. It is ultimately an ugly looking movie. The cinematography, by longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique, goes for a dull color palette that makes Lawrence’s golden hair look brownish grey. It’s often very dark, and ungenerous to the few black actors in the movie, mushing their faces into the background.

It’s not a pleasant movie to sit through, but it’s definitely an experience. When all is said and done, it fits comfortably with the previous movies in Aronofsky’s career. As a matter of fact, this is probably the “most Aronofsky” of his movies, allowing the director to unleash his stylistic id thanks to the guiding structure of the scripture he is trying to allegorize. Honestly, my main complaint with the movie is that there’s not enough Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s only the first section of the movie, and she fucking kills it. The woman is a freaking movie star, why isn’t every director writing movies for her?

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Ambition, Disappointment, ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

First Look

Two episodes in, I was sure Top of the Lake: China Girl had the potential to not only surpass the quality of its predecessor, but end up as one of the best television seasons ever produced. I’m afraid I got a little too excited too quickly. This is the sequel series to the miniseries Top of the Lakewhich was shepherded into television four years ago by the brilliant Jane Campion. It was a beautiful miniseries about a troubled detective looking for a missing child in the most remote corners or New Zealand. This second adventure translates the action to the beaches of Sydney, Australia, and while its opening chapters confidently set off to explore a number of fascinating subjects -motherhood, misogyny, prostitution-, the series doesn’t quite manage to bring them all together in the home stretch. It is ultimately a disappointment, albeit an ambitious one.

It’s a bit ironic that China Girl suffers from loose ends and plots that resolve in disappointing anti-climax, because one of my few complaints about the original series was the fact that its conclusion was a little too neat and tidy. In that original story, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to her hometown of Laketop, a community nestled between giant mountains, and is wrangled into solving the case of a missing child. Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) is a twelve year-old girl who runs away from home after she gets pregnant. Things get complicated from there. We learn Robin was herself a teenage rape victim, that she gave up the resulting child to adoption, and that Tui’s story is connected to her own past in a way she didn’t anticipate. It’s a lonely show, in which the scale of the New Zealand mountains clash with the tiny specificity of human psychology. In the end, Robin solves the case, and gets a bruised but beautiful paradise of her own.

A paradise that collapses in on itself before the second season even begins. Now Robin is trying to get over the trauma of what she lost by diving back into detective work in the big city. There are two things Robin is preoccupied with throughout this second season. First, solving the murder of an unidentified woman who washes up the Australian coast stuffed in a suitcase. Second, reconnecting with the daughter she gave up all those years ago. The girl has grown up to be Mary (Alice Englert), a truly conflicted teenager who lashes out against her divorcing parents (Ewen Leslie and Nicole Kidman) by dating a creepiest 42 year-old German called Puss (David Dencik). Of the main characters, Mary is the only one that knows Puss lives in the brothel where the washed up corpse used to work. Things get complicated from there.

Campion and her collaborators (most importantly co-writer Gerard Lee and co-director Ariel Kleinman) are clearly going for complexity here. They try to create characters that are hard to read and put them in situations that don’t allow for easy reactions, but what initially comes off as complex ends up feeling like a shapeless contradiction. It’s a show with all the elements of great television, they’re just off in the calibration. There are a number of truly excellent scenes, especially early on. The scene in which Robin meets Mary for the first time feels incredibly honest. As does most everything having to do with Robin’s relationship to her case partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), which elegantly flows from hilarious to moving. Otherwise, the characters in China Girl tend to act in ways I haven’t seen any human act before, and the show suffers for it.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship between Mary and Puss. He is presented to us as a truly grotesque human, talking about how he is a feminist before asking Nicole Kidman about her tits. He does much worse things than that, and while everyone recognizes the man as a monster, Mary refuses to leave him. She’s in love. “You don’t know him like I do”, she repeats over and over. And we don’t. Why Mary could see in this man is beyond comprehension, even if you recognize that teenagers are known for making bad decisions. The same puzzlement extends to the way Mary’s parents react to the situation. They land somewhere between acknowledgement that her kid is lashing out to resignation that she’s probably going to be swallowed into a prostitution ring. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, prostitution is legal in Australia, but I just don’t understand the characters’ reactions.

You can sense that a more generous glimpse into the characters’ inner lives would have gone a long way for a show with such a convoluted storyline. How convenient is it that Robin’s daughter has a relationship to the brothel involved in the case she’s trying to work? This sort of plotting is easier to accept when it feels like a tool to get at character and theme. Character, as explained before, is a little shaky here. But what about theme? I’d say what Campion is most interested here is the concept of motherhood. The dead woman turns out to have been pregnant when she died. Miranda is also pregnant. And there’s, of course, Robin’s re-connection with Mary. In this regard, the show seems to be focused a little too much on Robin’s perspective. This is frustrating on a couple levels, the first is that the character of Mary’s mother is underserved. This is irritating not only because that means Nicole Kidman doesn’t get enough to do, but because it comes off as particularly cruel given how kindly the character of Mary’s dad is treated. The relationship between Mary and her mom seemed ripe for resonance at the beginning, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

The other frustrating aspect about the show’s overwhelming focus on Robin is the way it relegates its victim and the other prostitutes to the background. The victim eventually gets a name, but never appears as herself. Only as a corpse or an erotic fantasy. The other prostitutes function more as a commenting unit than as individual humans. Their personalities are never really developed (their faces are the only thing that helps us tell them apart), so they end up feeling more like an accessory to the show’s themes rather than characters. This is particularly problematic since they are essentially the only major characters of color in the show. There is lip service paid to the fact that these women are exploited by western society (and not only sexually), but it doesn’t feel meaningful. The show isn’t interested in them as human the way it is in its white characters.

I would like to end by addressing this last “problematic” element. The demand for more, better stories that reflect the lives of racial minorities is loud. The lack of representation is still a problem. Most people suggest that the way to solve the problem is to encourage and sponsor more stories told by people of color. I agree with those people, I think this step is fundamental. I also think there’s another step to it. I think white filmmakers must also recognize their whiteness as part of their identity. No one can escape identity politics, and while I see why white directors would want to avoid getting involved in the sensitive topic of representation and race, I think they must. White people played a role in creating these systems of oppression, and they must play a role in dismantling them.

I’m not quite sure why I decided this was the place to write down my views on this issue. Top of the Lake: China Girl isn’t exactly a monumental work of racism or anything like that. It is a very ambitious show, often rewarding, and often frustrating. But I just can’t help but wonder what kind of show we would have gotten if Jane Campion and her collaborators would have gone in to humanize and explore the prostitutes the way they did Robin and some of the other white characters. It’s impossible to say if it would’ve been a better show. But the effort might have been worth it in and on itself.

Fall Movie Preview

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I’ve been trying (perhaps not hard enough) to write more reviews. Or at least, to write reviews on a more consistent schedule. I’ve also been trying (definitely not hard enough) to write things other than reviews. Keeping in that spirit, I’ve decided to write this post, which is notably not a review, and will hopefully serve as a sort of commitment for me to write future reviews by announcing what movies (and television) I will be watching this Fall.

So here’s how this works: I’ve look at the release calendar of all the movies that will come out between Labor Day and Thanksgiving and looked for the ones I’m interested in. I’ve decided to write them up week by week, highlighting the movie that I’m most likely to write about, while still mentioning anything that looks like something I would watch.

Friday September 8

Not a particularly exciting week at the movies, I’m afraid (September is a notoriously rough month for big releases), so we’ll have to settle for television. This Friday sees the release of the fourth season of Bojack Horseman on Netflix, which is great news. If the mix of absurdist, very punny, Hollywood satire and existential dread sounds like the kind of cocktail you might like, then you ought to watch yourself some Bojack. 

The really great news is that Jane Campion’s sequel series Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres on Sunday September 10. The original Top of the Lake was an outstanding piece of television, and the second season got nothing but rave reviews when it played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Elisabeth Moss returns in the lead role, this time joined by Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie.

But if you really want to go to the movie theatre, I’m most curious about the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Home Againa directorial debut by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of kitchen-loving auteur Nancy Meyers.

Friday September 15

Darren Aronofsky has a new movie coming out. I run hot and cold on Aronofsky. I’m getting mixed signals from mother!not knowing if this is going to be the fun and silly Aronofsky who made Black Swan, or the insufferably serious Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream. But who am I kidding? There’s no way I’m not seeing this movie because of one reason and one reason only… Michelle motherfucking Pfeiffer. So, yes, call this whatever you want. In my mind this is the new Michelle Pfeiffer movie, which also features Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris.

There’s also Brad’s Statusthe new movie by Mike White, beloved as writer of School of Rock and creator of HBO’s Enlightened. It stars Ben Stiller as guy taking his son on college tours and feeling sad. Midlife crisis movie doesn’t sound all that original, but White is known for being a particularly insightful writer so I’ll give it a chance.

Friday September 22

There’s a lot of movies to pick from this week, but the thing I’m most excited about is, again, television. The fourth season of Amazon’s Transparent. I know not a lot of people are watching this show, and some of those who watched were turned off by its dislikable characters, but I remain in thinking it one of the most emotionally daring and moving shows in the history of television. I will definitely be watching.

As for movies, lots to choose from but nothing I’m too thrilled about. There’s Kingsman: The Golden Circlewhich is a sequel to a bad movie but has Julianne Moore in it so maybe I’ll see it? There’s Ninjago, which arrives just as I’m getting really tired of these Lego movies. There’s Victoria and Abdulour yearly middlebrow British drama starring Judi Dench. There’s Battle of the Sexesstarring Steve Carell and Emma Stone as opponents in that historical tennis match. There’s Loving Vincentthe first (and probably last) animated movie consisting entirely of oil-on-canvas paintings. And then there’s Woodshock in which Kiki Dunst takes drugs in the woods or something. I’ll probably watch some of these.

Friday September 29

The thing I’m most excited for this weekend is the New York Film Festival, which of course is something that not everyone gets to enjoy. I will be seeing ten or so movies there, including new movies by international auteurs such as Lucrecia Martel, Agnes Varda, Aki Kaurismaki, and Claire Denis. I will try to do some short reviews of whatever I see while the festival is going on.

In other non region specific activities, there’s the premiere of The Deucethe new HBO show about the porn industry in 1970s Time Square, which comes courtesy of David Simon (creator of The Wire) and stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. And there’s also the Tom Cruise movie American Made, which doesn’t look all that interesting from the trailers but is directed by Doug Liman whose last collaboration with Cruise was the great summer romp Edge of Tomorrow. 

Friday October 6

Two of the movies I’m seeing at the Film Festival open in limited release this week. Faces Placesthe new very personal documentary by French filmmaking legend Agnes Varda. And The Florida ProjectSean Baker’s follow-up to his critically beloved Tangerine, which is somehow gotten even better reviews.

It might feel like I’m burying the lede here as far as big releases are concerned, so it’s time for a confession… I don’t like Blade Runner. Actually, I dislike it quite intensely. So my enthusiasm for Blade Runner 2049 is limited to say the least. I will see it, and I’ll probably review it. I just thought I’d let you know where I stand going in.

Friday October 13

Not a lot of exciting releases this week, but IMDb says Noah Baumbach’s new movie The Meyerowitz Stories is going to be released on Netflix this week. The movie focuses on an estranged family of New Yorkers composed of Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The movie premiered at Cannes, where Sandler got very positive reviews for his performance, so there’s something to look forward to.

Friday October 20

Todd Haynes has the difficult job of having to make another movie after his last one was a sublime masterpiece, but hey, such is the nature of the job. In his follow-up to Carol, he’s decided to change gears with Wonderstrucka YA adaptation in which two stories -one about a deaf girl in the 1920s and one about a boy in the 1970s- slowly converge with each other.

There’s also the limited release of BPM (Beats Per Minute)the movie about the French chapter of AIDS-fighting activist group Act Up that took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm. It came out of Cannes with the Grand Jury Prize and the reputation of being a festival stand-out.

Friday October 27

There’s a lot to choose from this week. I’m most looking forward to The Killing of a Sacred DeerYorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to The Lobster, in which a doctor and a family are haunted by a sinister young man. Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone all star in this one.

I’m also looking forward to The Squarethis year’s Palme D’Or winner, a two and a half hour Swedish comedy about the world of high art that is meant to be as awkward and dry as it sounds. Suburbicon a new satire directed by George Clooney and written by the Coen brothers which features a great cast including Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac. Felicite a drama about a Congolese singer, a rare opportunity to see African cinema that shouldn’t be missed. And Novitiateabout a young nun questioning her faith with Melissa Leo in a buzzy supporting role.

Friday November 3

I’m a Marvel agnostic, but the prospect of Taika Waititi (director of the hilarious What We Do in the Shadows and lovely Hunt for the Wilderpeople) putting his skills toward directing one of their movies is enough to get me excited for Thor: Ragnarokeven if the Thor arm of the franchise has never been my favorite. That and the presence of Cate Blanchett as a villainous Nordic goddess, of course.

I’m also quite excited for Blade of the Immortalthe latest from violent Japanese master Takashi Miike, which promises a lots of amazing samurai battles.

Friday November 10

There are two releases I’m very much looking forward to this week, and both feature one of my favorite working actresses. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as a foul-mouthed grieving mother in the latest movie by foul-mouthed playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh. While Lady Bird brings a double the action as far as my favorite actresses are concerned, starring Saoirse Ronan in the very personal directorial debut of one Greta Gerwig.

In limited release, Norwegian auteur Joachin Trier brings us Thelmaabout a woman with fantastic powers. And then there’s Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient ExpressJohnny Depp is part of an otherwise exciting ensemble which includes Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Branagh stars as inspector Poirot, and I certainly hope this project is as hammy as that cast makes it seem.

Friday November 17

It’s funny how Justice League suddenly became “the new Wonder Woman movie.” It’s probably for the best, considering how much palatable Wonder Woman’s heroic disposition is compared to the dour tone of the latest Batman and Superman installments. Is there any reason to believe this movie is going to be anything but terrible? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for more promising releases, we have Richard Linkalater’s pseudo-sequel to The Last Detail, in which three veterans reunite to honor the corpse of a fallen soldier in Last Flag FlyingSteve Carell and Laurence Fishburne are both in this one, but it seems like Bryan Cranston plays the lead and you know that can’t be good. There’s also Mudbounda historical drama about a Mississippi plantation directed by the wonderful Dee Rees that will premiere on Netflix.

Wednesday November 22

This day sees two very exciting releases that got me a little nervous. First is the namesake of this blog, Pixar’s Cocowhose promotional materials feature a really funny ugly-cute dog, but have otherwise failed to impress me. Is it just me or is “dia de los muertos” the only thing Hollywood is interested in when it comes to Mexican culture? There’s also Darkest Hour, a Winston Churchill biopic that has me excited because it’s directed by my beloved Joe Wright but has me worried because it stars Gary Oldman in a fat suit and is a Winston Churchill biopic.

Friday November 24

Finally, Thanksgiving will greet us with some delicious peaches, courtesy of Call Me By Your Name. In his latest movie, Italian Luca Guadagnino, adapts a novel about a young boy who falls in love with an older student. The whole thing is set on the Italian coast, so you know it will be beautiful. If that weren’t enough, it is already one of the best reviewed movies of the year.