‘Mother!’ and the boundaries of disturbing cinema

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Up until the other day, on my first viewing of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! I had only been disturbed by a few films, most notably Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto – for its sheer gore and tribal violence – and Gasper Noé’s irreversible – featuring an incredibly long and uncomfortable rape scene. Admittedly, even the baby trip from the first Trainspotting gave me the creeps.

Nevertheless, thinking I could handle whatever Aronofsky threw at me, I settled down to watch his latest film mother!, starring everyone’s favourite Jennifer Lawrence and Havier Bardem. The first act was pretty standard, I began to wonder where the controversy was sourced in this what-appeared-to-be story of marital breakdown. It wasn’t until a few surprising cameos later that the action kicked off. From there on in, I too was trapped, like Lawrence, in what seemed to be the unravelling psyche of her gothic mansion with its fleshy walls and intangible dimensions.

Having caught this film late, I may have been prone to a few mild spoilers and the inclination that this story serves as a metaphor for a larger idea at play. However, my question to audiences of such movies is this – if you can’t deduct such metaphors whilst viewing the film, if the director’s intentions aren’t conveyed explicitly enough, can the movie still be a success?

Call me slow, but not once did I grasp the metaphorical value of mother! In fact, I was left so disgusted by the outrageous final act – one that was described by Aronofsky as a ‘fever dream’ – that I wanted the films meaning to become clear as a means for catharsis, a catharsis on my behalf anyway. However, the ending was just as enigmatic as the previous two hours. Had I just watched a violent metaphor for the delusion of fame, art or even religion? It wasn’t until I had scoured Google for some answers to the profound dream work of Aronofsky that I came upon his stated vision. It is fair to say, I was left bewildered.

Thus arises my next question – can you still enjoy such disturbing ambiguity? Indeed, various directors have accomplished this with stellar results, think Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a sacred deer or Jonathon Glazer’s Under the Skin, both of which remain slightly disturbing yet artistically compelling all the while. However, ‘mother!’ was such an uncomfortable watch with no breathing space or time to appreciate cinematic quality, what with all the chaos and pandemonium. Spending all the film looking over Lawrence’s shoulder or directly in her traumatised face, it seems that Aronofsky’s efforts were to maximise the experience, rather than the story itself. With claims from critics that the film is best judged a few days later, no doubt after the disturbance has subsided, I struggle to remember much apart from several shocking images, those which made me question – how much is too much?

Ultimately, what frustrated me when watching mother! is the audacity some directors have in presenting such vulgar scenes without some kind of moral justification or clear reasoning. I am hesitant to spoil the ‘legitimate’ reading, as stated by Lawrence in an interview, however I will put out the challenge to those brave enough to watch mother!, can you deduce Aronofsky’s attempted social critique (if that’s what you call it) in just one viewing?