‘Mother!’ asks us to reconsider the rules of domesticity

Silence.

That is all Jennifer Lawrence wants in “Mother!” and yet, instead, she finds herself silenced instead.

It’s also what I heard after the film cut to black. That, some murmuring and nervous laughter. It was as if the whole room was still holding its breath. About a minute passed before anyone moved to gather up candy or don coats to leave.

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I saw “Mother!” at the Odeon in Leicester Square. While it isn’t the most luxe out of the millions of cinemas crammed into that area, there is a Costa in there! So I could enjoy a nice soya vanilla latte while I cried and gripped my arm rest in fear.

Darren Aronofksy’s latest film was a lot. A lot to sit through, no, endure. A lot to unpack once you’ve left the cinema or shut your laptop down. But that’s why Aronofsky’s name came out of my mouth when we were breaking the ice in film classes and claiming our favourite auteurs.

It’s a shame Sofia Coppola and Steve McQueen were the only directors who came to mind besides the obvious slew of straight, white men. But that being said, Aronofsky has a way with reality and shifting time and showing the ugly side of human nature in a beautiful manner that just sits right with me.

As soon as I finished “Black Swan” the first time, I hit replay. And I loved “Lux Aeterna” from “Requiem for a Dream” so much I bought it on iTunes. Yes, with real USD and in a post-Spotify world.

When I heard last year that Aronofksy and Lawrence teamed up for a film, I had high expectations. From “Silver Linings Playbook” to the Hunger Games series, Lawrence is just golden to me as an actress. And as I playfully proclaimed on a Snapchat last November, “Mother!” better be good for all of this gratuitous PDA between Lawrence and Aronofsky.

“Mother!” was pretty damn good, but by far, it was not enjoyable to watch.

The film is about this couple who live out in the country. The characters are not named in the film, but are referred to on IMDB as “Him” and “Mother.” The man, played by Javier Bardem, is a best-selling author plagued with writers’ block. His lover, Lawrence’s character, is a pretty young thing who gave up everything to be with him and spends her days restoring his childhood home.

Despite their relationship hiccups and his creative rut, it’s a quaint existence out in the country. All of that is upset by the arrival of a mysterious guest and then, suddenly, so many more.

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The visitors are fixated on Bardem, to say the least, whereas Lawrence remains in the background. Where others see Lawrence as weak, unintelligent, insignificant and deserving of her place in the shadows, they miss her strength. Beyond the traditionally horrific aspects of “Mother!,” this narrative element calls out to me as the true terror of the film.

Through “Mother!,” Aronofksy encapsulates the perils of womanhood. We watch Lawrence confront casual sexism, the relentless male gaze, suffocating expectations for her pre-ordained path in life and ultimately, her struggle to define femininity on her own terms.

In a sense, Aronofksy tackles all of the issues of Second Wave feminism with a fresh-and-yet-rustic face.

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At first glance (as a viewer or one of the visitors in the film), you’d think Lawrence is simply trying, for better or for worse, to fit into gender norms by dedicating her life to the domestic sphere. The response is either: try harder to be Bardem’s perfect housewife or break free from the confines of gender conformity.

But don’t get it twisted. Lawrence was not made responsible for housework because of her gender. Lawrence expends so much effort on tending the home because she takes pride in it. She isn’t relegated to the work. She enjoys it. All of her home improvements empower and ground her.

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And yet, herein Bardem takes advantage. He offers to help every now and then, but you can tell he has gotten lazy in the relationship. He’s distant, but not completely emotionally unavailable. He overflows with generosity for literally everyone else. It’s just that when it comes to Lawrence, he doesn’t reciprocate.

Likewise, he takes Lawrence’s tenderness, loving and care for granted. Of course, it is no accident that while Lawrence is barred from being a biological mother, she still ends up mothering Bardem anyway.

As I said, the inciting incidents take place with the arrival of visitors. But more precisely, the plot gears up when as Lawrence’s place as mother and homemaker are tested.

Figurines get shattered, delicate door handles get bludgeoned, thresholds get boarded up, walls get haphazardly painted, furniture gets smashed, and wood gets wine- and blood-damaged. If you’ve ever found yourself worshipping at the altar of Joanna and Chip Gaines, then I’m sure you understand the horror.

In turn, the fragile bond between Bardem and Lawrence gets caught in the crossfire.

Lawrence’s reclaiming of homemaking as a tool for empowerment is radical, but her attachment to the process and the concept of home isn’t. When the balance is upset, she has a hard time coping. Bardem is no help. And that’s realistic, because what good are men (conditioned to be) at helping women in crises like this?

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It is painful to watch Lawrence and the house deteriorate. The camera work, particularly through point of view, and sound mixing emphasize it’s a hell of a wringer Lawrence and the house are being put through.

While not nearly as rigid or colorless, there is a touch of “Jeanne Dielman” about the film. Similar to the protagonist of Chantal Akerman’s film, you watch Lawrence’s meticulously curated life disintegrate from scene-to-scene. You can clock how her very appearance, an extension of her outlook, becomes less romantic.

As someone who went into the film rooting for Aronofsky, I can say I’ve come out the other side with the same optimism and admiration toward his work. I can also say that I don’t regard “Mother!” with nearly the same sort of fondness I do “Black Swan” or “Requiem for a Dream.” This time, there was no pleasure at all to scoop up from Aronofsky’s darkness.

And yet, a job very well done. There was for certain a detail I missed or another reading I have yet to unearth. I’m sure once I can muster up enough courage to sit through “Mother!” again, I will.

 

 

 

 

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