Shot mostly in close-ups, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! meticulously follows Jennifer Lawrence’s character, having her constantly fill the screen. Playing a young woman married to an older poet (Javier Bardem), she comes into his life after his home has burned down and she begins rebuilding his house. Despite her help and devotion to him, she is ultimately neglected.
Matters are complicated when some fans of the poet’s writing (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) arrive, which culminates in a fight between their sons — one of them dying. To the wife’s protests, the poet continues to invite volatile people into their house, which pulsates, bleeds, and crumbles, particularly from a fleshy, vaginal-like opening in the floor which leads to a secret room in the basement. When the wife becomes pregnant, the writer begins to care for her once more — until his new work, inspired by the conception of their baby, is finished. With the release of his book, fans once again arrive at their home, taking over their lives, and the pregnant wife must fight to gain control over her situation.
In this melodramatic relationship, the couple isolated and microcosmic, Lawrence as the titular mother is subjected to a series of abuses and torture. Initially rejected by her husband — her needs and desires are never met while she does everything in her power to please him — her situation only worsens as he becomes more and more interested in other people. His fans validate him, and he places their, and his own, interests above those of his wife, who meekly accepts out of a deep love for him — a love which seems never reciprocated. Her situation becomes more dangerous as the murder occurs in her home, and as, in the third act, the fans turn the house into a literal war-zone.
Running the gamut of violence against women, the wife experiencing everything from emotional to physical abuse, mother! is very pointlessly a work of pure misogyny. Films which depict extreme abuse in order to make a point that abuse exists are not effective: it’s well known that violence against women exists, and the simple regurgitation of it on screen is not illuminating. The reproduction of misogyny, without thought or solid critique, can very rarely be effective beyond its lifelessly repetitive presentation, so often indistinguishable from works of more earnest hatred. But mother! goes far beyond a simple straightforward representation of abuse.
Aronofsky’s film becomes extreme in order to depict constant trauma. It’s bad enough to watch the mother trembling in fear, illness, confusion, and submission. It becomes unbearable to watch when her husband, as she insults him, forces herself on her: the rape scene turns to passion as she stops fighting back and begins to enjoy it and, taking charge, grips his body with her legs. It’s equally unbearable to watch as Lawrence is beaten, punched and kicked in the face with her breasts exposed, while her attackers call her a “cunt” and a “whore”; a scene which feels more like violent porn, the pandering to a specific fetish, than anything else.
Between moments of unwatchable violence, the film is peppered with shots of Lawrence’s body. She spends much of her time wearing a sheer nightgown and is framed in medium shots so that we may see her breasts. We take up her perspective and watch as she herself looks down her shirt, this time her breasts in close-up. With such a classic adherence to the male gaze, Aronofsky’s filmmaking matches his thematic misogyny perfectly.
mother!’s violent sexism is its biggest problem, but not it’s only one. Incredibly heavy-handed, and centering around a simplistic religious allegory, the narrative feels juvenile at best. Lacking real atmosphere, and so overly focused on Lawrence’s face and body that it ignores everything else, the film never creates proper tension which it so desperately needs. The anxiety the mother feels over the constant invasion of her home is just one-note frustration: from start to finish, her husband ignores her wishes, and with no progression, the evenness of conflict is boring. And the sound, designed to draw out and emphasize shrill notes to express the mother’s delirious perspective, is amateurish and unoriginal rather than a creative way of conveying a subjective sensory experience.
While Aronofsky’s artistry is at an all-time-low, it’s his misogyny that makes the film abhorrent. Even if the point is to illustrate the unending slog that is patriarchal oppression, the result is a truly angry film towards women. With its disgusting, sexist abuse of the mother, Aronofsky’s film is perhaps the most hateful of 2017’s Toronto International Film Festival.