Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 16, 2017 3:01 am 
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Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem in Mother!

Home wreckers

Darren Aronofsky's movies are nearly always at risk of turning into horror movies. This time he actually seems to have intended to make one, which swerves into comedy with its droll surprises and absurd extremes, not anchored by the "real" activity of being a ballet dancer like Black Swan. He starts in early with standard horror movie effects. Primarily, he plays around with the usual haunted or possessed house that has a terrifying life of its own. His couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, live in a Victorian mansion that's crumbling menacingly and oozing blood from holes in its floorboards. The threatening and later on threatened house is the true star, without which there would be no film. Not that the main characters don't grab our attention. There are, shall we say, child-bearing issues, which owe something to Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.

How it all fits together is uncertain. The movie is a bit of a mess. It feels out of control, its baser impulses increasingly dominant. But it's so into itself and so triumphantly well staged in its effects, its mad scenes, and its insane crowd saturnalia, that one watches with a certain fascination. Some of those scenes suggest Buñuel. As they become more like something from Dante's Inferno, they approach the surrealism of Buñuel's early collaborator, Salvador Dalì. If only there were flaming giraffes and melting pianos.

This isn't, of course, a "conventional" horror movie any more than the nightmarish Black Swan was one. Note how it emerges that, in their beloved but creepy ancestral fixer-upper, instead of some malevolent spirit, what lingers polluting the air is the horror of: poetry! The need to versify becomes cruelly destructive in the way it torments and leads astray a creatively blocked poet (Bardem). His massively insecure and needy ego leads him to sacrifice everything - the house, his wife, their baby - to please his cannibalistically cultish fans, whose needs matter more to him than his own - or more importantly, his wife's. This is a nightmare allegory, perhaps a morality play, about how artistic obsessions, or the lust for fame, could undermine a marriage - and tear down a house, and worse. Or maybe this isn't about anything, other than Aronofsky's out-of-control need to scare and entertain.

It's obvious things aren't quite right as the wife tinkers away at artistic plastering of a wall while the husband mulls over his lack of literary productivity. He has had one celebrated work that now haunts him. What that work is like, perhaps mercifully, isn't described. If it was Rod McKuen, that would be a let-down, wouldn't it? Aronofsky thrives on the cusp between serious and kitsch. The wife's plastering doesn't make much sense, as art or otherwise, other than to hint at something creepy behind the wall. Things aren't quite right between husband and wife - and there isn't much chemistry between the two actors.

At first this might seem like an episode of the old home improvement show "This Old House" (which took the "mystery and fright factors out of remodeling and carpentry chores," a description of it appropriately goes), only as reframed by Ingmar Bergman, and perhaps aiming to put the mystery and fright factors back in. But Aronofsky ain't Bergman (or Buñuel or von Trier either). The early scenes really drag, and hearing about a crystal that was the only thing that survived a house of Bardem's that burned to the ground doesn't help, unless you're into the science and lore of crystals.

No Country for Old Men showed how wonderfully creepy Javier Bardem could be; but this time he's more just so cretinous you want to smash him. Someone who seems more neurotic, like Jessica Chastain, would have been more appropriate to play the wife, unless Aronofsky mainly wanted a young beautiful bride primed for slaughter. It's one of the traditional weaknesses of horror movies, that cast members are interchangeable counters pushed around amid the more important slamming doors and swooshes, and that tendency threatens these good actors in this setting.

We are rescued from boredom, as in a play, by the arrival of new characters who come knocking and strut the celluloid stage. First there is a very peculiar orthopedist with a hacking cough, played by Ed Harris. Then his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, unexpectedly arrives. He hadn't let on that he had a wife: Aronofsky wants us to understand that they're scoundrels. This new older couple rapidly becomes more and more annoying and invasive, such that Bergman is now replaced by Pinter. Or a medieval morality play, because these "people" could be malevolent stick figures. Lawrence's character wants the orthopedist gone from the start, and his nosy, rude wife compounds the torment of this invasion. The poet husband welcomes them, because Harris' character is a huge fan, while his wife begs to have them sent away. This is the pattern that's going to follow, repeated in waves, only ramped up to infinity, or nearly, as the two-plus hours of mother! go by. ( The lowercase title underlines her subjugation, apparently. The exclamation point - I don't know.)

This movie's growing frenzy, though simplistic as content, is so intently pursued it's a perverse pleasure, till it becomes ludicrously over the top - and with the childbirth and its aftermath horrifying and disgusting - and then it crumbles away, except for the fire, which swallows up the crumble. The birthing evokes Lars von Trier, even if Polanski was a starting point.

The director reportedly once said, "It's a very hard line, as a filmmaker, to know when is too much. And I'm usually on the wrong side of it." Jennifer Lawrence, worshipful enough to say she came to the filmmakder because she wanted to take on new challenges, declared after seeing the finished film that her first thought was "We took it too far" (see Variety). Understatement of the year, though of necessity, she corrects herself and says they did just right.

Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian, giving mother! 5 stars out of 5, says in his Venice review that "As horror it is ridiculous, as comedy it is startling and hilarious, and as a machine for freaking you out it is a thing of wonder." I admire Bradshaw's fluency and enthusiasm as a movie critic, but he can go overboard, as in his praise of Xavier Dolan's It's Only the End of the World, and this doesn't quite compute. How can the movie fail utterly as horror yet wonderfully "freak you out"? What is the difference? Are the Mother's (or mother's) sufferings really comic? What's comic is that it's silly enough to take itself seriously. That's not comedy, it's goof-up, laugh-at, not laugh-with; and there were titters in the audience throughout.

It doesn't feel like Lawrence is much challenged, except physically. She is called upon to do simple reacting, not acting - complaining, protesting hopelessly at all the violations of her privacy and integrity as a person that Bardem and all the evil invaders his character allows into the house impose on her. Both are more than a bit one-note. Her beautiful (and in after-image surprisingly serene) face, however, photographed with ample closeups showing her luminous skin, may be what keeps some of us from walking out. I stuck around just to see if it would ever end, and to find my cap, which got lost under the seat, when the lights came on. Staying to the last rewards us with a trite reassurance. Ce n'était qu'un rêve. The lights came on and I retrieved my cap from my malevolent seat, which earlier had snatched a young man's daypack in its claws. Life is a horror movie sometimes, and so is watching horror movies.

mother! 121 mins., debuted at San Sebastián, Venice, playing in close succession at London and Toronto and opening in the US 15 Sept. 2017. It premiered in Paris a week earlier, poorly received, the AlloCiné press rating a miserable 2.8. Critics often say the action is stale and flat (despite all the ramping up!). Aronofsky has admirers in the US: the Metacritic rating is 75% despite Rex Reed, in a wave of enthusiasm, declaring it "the worst movie of the century."

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