Imagine that story “The Yellow Wallpaper”(house-confined woman battles the diagnosis of hysteria) adapted by Salvador Dalí, then merged with Psycho and a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby.
The latest from writer-director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan)—curiously stylized as mother!, as if part of a panicked text message—is a lot like that, only blown up into a two-hour dream-allegory for the strangling of a woman by her husband’s artistic ego.
While it’s not as bat-guano insane as it sounds, and more freaky than scary, this film smashes, head-on, the emotional freight of a nightmare into the operatic theatricality of Aronofsky’s woozily claustrophobic first-person fables.
A strange fairytale beginning (husband touches a crystal on a stand, bringing the house to life) puts us in Never-Real Land from the start.
The entire film may be in the head of Her/Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who never leaves this house. It’s an octagonal, panopticon-like building where, thanks to Matthew Libatique’s disturbingly in-close, even oppressive cinematography (often right up by Mother’s head), it’s hard to get a reassuring sense of where exactly we are in this place, which she’s still renovating.
When her blocked-up poet of a much older husband, a.k.a. Him (Javier Bardem), welcomes an apparent stranger (Ed Harris), into their home, hell soon creaks and clanks and shudders loose. The man’s sly, undermining wife—deftly played with a witchlike twinkle by Michelle Pfeiffer—only pours more gas onto the hell flames.
Freud and Poe soon battle it out (the house has a beating heart Mother can detect; a floor’s bloodstain can’t be scrubbed out, becoming a vaginal mark that stickily opens up to Mother’s wrenching grasp). Her hallucinatory home-scape’s threatened by another family’s invasion, briefly becalmed by pregnancy and the birth of the couple’s son, then exploded in a siege-turned-riot after He welcomes his fans, flocking to Him in adulation after the publication, at last, of his newest book.
Is this film one long, twisted, metaphorical apology from auteur Aronofsky for the toll that his creations take? At least mother! has enough serpentine freakiness to writhe away from such easy explanations. Though the Woman takes so much punishment here, the film’s ultimately a condemnation of the Great Man Artist who burns up and discards his muse. That may seem too basic a moral, but the fractured fable preceding it has enough flashes and flourishes of art to make this house visit worth the surreal staycation.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky