Darren Aronofsky has gone out on a limb, then chopped it off. The director’s new film Mother! was lustily booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere last week. It’s the ultimate modern test case of a Hollywood studio, Paramount, giving an auteur his head, not trying to rein in his impulses and intuitions with test screenings or corporate quibbles. The world’s biggest star, Jennifer Lawrence, also trusted Aronofsky enough to not only plunge into his world, but fall in love with him during the shoot. The result is so violently chaotic, eventually boring and intellectually thin that you almost wish some studio apparatchik had found the nerve to ask one of American cinema’s modern Emperors if he was quite sure he was fully dressed.
Lawrence plays Mother!’s titular, domestic and loving young woman, living with the Poet (Javier Bardem) in apparently Edenic isolation, till Ed Harris knocks on their lonely door, bringing blowsy wife Michelle Pfeiffer at the vanguard of eventual regiments of increasingly violent strangers. As its first scene makes clear, Mother is also a dream-like metaphor for creation and creativity from a director who has begun two previous films, The Fountain (2006) and Noah (2014), with quotes from the Book of Genesis.
Though he may be a naked Emperor by the end, Aronofsky begins clothed by one of his heroes, with a first hour which is pure Polanski: Lawrence as the justifiably anxious young woman of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, dealing with the dangerous intruders of Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac. With her predatory cheekbones and stiff, alcoholic stagger, Pfeiffer’s interloper is also a feminised version of a malevolent Harold Pinter visitor. It’s when Lawrence’s character becomes pregnant half-way through Mother! that its portents and symbols – the yellow powder she drinks, the spongy bloodstain in the floor – smash into a pummelling, sadistic climax straight out of Lars von Trier. Riot, rape and mayhem run noisily, aimlessly rampant, till Mother’s head is stamped by massed tormentors.
It’s no wonder Lawrence hyperventilated, tore her diaphragm and broke a rib in one scene. She recovered with an oxygen mask, and Aronofsky gratefully filmed her unfiltered emotion. This is the elixir Vincent Cassel’s director in Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) also seeks from Natalie Portman’s clenched, paranoid ballerina. “All that discipline, and I’ve never seen you lose yourself,” he sneers. Cassel’s main solution is to grope Portman out of her repression. Aronofsky’s relationships with his stars Lawrence and Rachel Weisz are far more innocent, mutual outcomes of the vulnerable collaboration he requires. Still, Weisz concluded on the set of 2006’s The Fountain that she’d “never been pushed this hard…to the point where you actually lose your mind”. Lawrence similarly feared she might not “come out okay”. Weisz’s co-star Hugh Jackman cried in front of his director. Evan Rachel Wood found herself pushed in The Wrestler to a place of raw instinct where you “just forget everything, and just do it”.
All, like Lawrence, were grateful for the opportunity. Aronofsky shoves his stars into the emotional red zone, but he’s no old-style Hollywood bully. Despite Mother’s brutalisation, the director who has given such thoughtful roles to Pfeiffer, Ellen Burstyn and Barbara Hershey alongside the hot young actresses of the moment can’t be accused of misogyny. If anything, Mother! condemns the Poet’s selfishness as he sucks his female muse dry for material.
The problem is Aronofsky’s material. He wrote Mother! in five days, and believed in the result enough to rehearse his actors for three months. But he has given his two Oscar-winning leads allegorical, largely unactable roles. Lawrence repetitively whines for her house’s endless intruders to please leave (leavened by a final, cathartic roar), while Bardem’s Poet is an opaque symbol, Aronofsky’s English sounding very much his second language. Audiences lured in by Lawrence’s presence in a film Paramount is marketing as straightforward psychological horror are in for a rude awakening.
Aronofsky has always sought out personal truth in his films, but Mother! is still a trade-off between art and commerce. His previous film about cycles of life and death played out through acts of creation, The Fountain, took five years and a halved budget to make; The Wrestler and its unfashionable star Mickey Rourke also required low-budget compromise barely better than the director’s independent beginnings with Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Then The Wrestler became an Oscar-nominated, sleeper hit, Black Swan was Oscar-winning and hugely profitable, and Paramount, entrusted $125m to the till then cash-strapped director for Noah, were again well-rewarded. With Lawrence as box-office guarantor, Paramount have therefore presented Aronofsky with the freedom to dive off his artistic deep-end (doubtless hoping he’ll think fondly of them next time he makes a Black Swan).
For the first time, he has floundered. What he called Ellen Burstyn’s “big crazy flip-out scene” in Requiem for a Dream saw her TV- and slimming pill-addicted character hallucinate jeering chaos. The point was made in a couple of minutes. Mother!’s surreal apocalypse says no more as it belabours Lawrence and us for 30. The discipline needed to effectively channel freedom has been abandoned. As he asks his actors to, the director has let himself go. The pure cinema of his adaptation of a favourite writer, Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, has become bad literature. And after a while, I was left wondering: why does Darren Aronofsky keep shouting at me?
Mother!’s existence remains a positive thing. Justified nostalgia for the eccentric humanity of the early 1970s’ New Hollywood obscures the last decade’s golden age of vastly ambitious, singular projects by obsessive American auteurs. Even the director-cowed studios of Polanski and Altman’s pomp would have balked at Charlie Kaufman’s Sony-financed Cubist edifice to the mutual leeching of art and reality, Synecdoche, New York (2008). Philip Seymour Hoffman gave that film its miserably tender, decrepit humanity, and also starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), which topped even Anderson’s oilfield Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood, for fierce, testing tone, as an agonised Joaquin Phoenix trailed Hoffman’s charismatic, cult-leading, Wellesian fraud across America. Anderson’s last film, Inherent Vice, actually caught the antic, moral tone of the previously unfilmable Thomas Pynchon. Donnie Darko’s director Richard Kelly hasn’t worked since The Box (2009), but the latter film’s visionary sense of strangeness as it investigates moral choice matches any grand Hollywood folly.
An actual New Hollywood survivor, Terrence Malick, has become suddenly prolific with far more abstract films than he ever made then. The Tree of Life (2011) shares cosmic religious themes with Aronofsky, and Malick has followed its path towards increasingly gauzy edits and would-be poetry in the likes of Knight of Cups (2015), his matchless eye for beauty and ache for transcendence eventually being allowed to overwhelm him.
This new golden age of great directors going too far may already be over. Kaufman bemoaned Synecdoche, New York’s box-office failure, and a recessionary climate since 2008 which made it impossible to fund his intended follow-up (last year’s stop-motion animated triumph about human identity and connection, Anomalisa, began with Kickstarter). Malick claims to have “repented” of his recent, freewheeling style of sensing his way towards films’ intentions, promising a coherent script for Radegund (its story of an Austrian conscientious objector under the Nazis perhaps straightened him out).
Aronofsky, meanwhile, has stayed as honest to himself in Mother! as he was in Pi. The consistent thread of his belief in meaningful if costly creation which also runs through The Fountain and Noah is one saving grace. And some critics are anyway as sure that Mother! is a masterpiece as I am that it’s overwrought and underwritten.
The real cost of going too far was neatly summed up by David Bowie a year or so before his death, while working with the jazz musician Maria Schneider on a version of “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)”. What, Schneider nervously wondered, would happen if their jazz-rock hybrid was a humiliating failure? “Don’t worry, Maria,” Bowie told her. “The plane goes down, and we all walk away.” Aronofsky will also emerge unscathed and, like his new film’s insufferable Poet, create afresh, till he gets it right.
‘Mother!’ is in cinemas from 15 September