contains! some! major! spoilers?
First off, let's dispense with the supposedly lower-case title malarkey: many people are referring to Darren Aronofsky's latest as mother!, for no apparent reason than because that's how it appears on the end credits. Well, so do all the names on the title cards at the end, and we don't refer to jennifer lawrence or javier bardem, because that just looks stupid, so in the absence of any solid, unanswerable reason why it shouldn't be capitalised (auteurial affectation doesn't cut it), I'm capitalising it as Mother!. I'll give you the exclamation mark, but don't push your luck.
Secondly, just what the hell is it? Horror? Allegory? Arthouse ramblings? All of the above. I don't think there's any doubt it's a horror movie: it's pure nightmare, particularly in its later scenes, with some images and moments that easily push it into the 18 certificate bracket, and it pretty much starts at a pitch of awkwardness and discomfort and proceeds downwards from there. Perhaps wisely, the publicity has been centred around the first act, which is more an unsettling drama in which the idyllic lives of Him and Mother (no-one has a name beyond their actual function, though Mother is actually Him's partner/wife) are disrupted by two strangers. Him (Javier Bardem) is a blocked poet, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) has restored their massive rural mansion from its burned-out original state. Suddenly Man and subsequently Woman (Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up out of (literally) nowhere and are initially welcomed by Him, to Mother's increased concern. Then Younger Brother and Oldest Son arrive...
From there both Mother and Mother! descend into a nightmare of escalating madness as strangers arrive at the house en masse and systematically wreck the place, while Mother tries vainly to cope with their needs and demands (you can see her hair getting greyer as the scene progresses) even as the house starts to collapse around them. And that's only the first act of the film - the second, madder and more extreme half concern Mother's pregnancy and the birth of her son. Specifically, it's what happens after that birth that leads to the most unpleasant and shocking scenes: suffice to say that if you're in the process of having children or have recently done so, don't see this film. The entire film is centred around Mother, with Lawrence almost never off screen and the camera frequently hovering over her shoulder.
Much has already been written in director's statements and the dreaded broadsheet think-pieces about exactly what Mother! is an allegory of: Creation, Adam And Eve, mankind's destruction of Mother Earth - everything on Earth was beautiful until People came along and destroyed it. Him is God and Mother is Mother Nature. Or maybe it's about drugs or oil or The Patriarchy or the act and cost of artistic creativity. For all I know it's actually about the Power Rangers (Him's precious crystal might as well be a reference to their Zeo Crystal from which all life is supposed to spring) - yes, I'm obviously being facetious, but is it that much MORE ridiculous than the Dan Brown-level symbolology of what the frog represents or the symbol on Ed Harris' cigarette lighter?
Look: if I'd known I was basically sitting an exam I'd have done some revision. I'm not an intellectual, I didn't go to University, but I'm not a knuckle-dragging imbecile who needs everything spoonfed in simple words. I made it through Hard To Be A God in one go, for goodness' sake. Sure, I didn't much enjoy the experience, but at least I was open to it. And I think it's great that major companies like Paramount are putting difficult, challenging and unusual films into the marketplace, and pushing them in wide releases rather than a couple of Curzons and the ICA - although if Mother! doesn't connect with audiences then this probably won't happen again and cinemas will play safe with a fourteenth week of the latest Batman instead.
But I also think there's no shame in having to look these things up afterwards to find out exactly what the hell that was all about. I had to do it with Michael Haneke's Hidden (I totally missed the supposed reveal in the final shot) and it wasn't until this year that Mulholland Dr. clicked with me courtesy of a featurette that explained how I (and others) had actually got the reality/fantasy divide backwards. Now I understand this, I find I like the film more. In the case of Mother! I think it's partly down to the publicity which completely misrepresents it: the trailer makes it look like an uneasy four-character drama and ignores the more visceral and shocking second hour when logic and reality break down into apparently random chaos, and the UK posters similarly give no hint of what watching the film is actually like. (I also think it's entirely irrelevant that this Cinemascore thing, an audience-based approval system of which I was entirely unaware until this weekend, gave it the lowest possible F rating, putting it in such shameful company as Bug and Wolf Creek.)
Look, it's clearly not rubbish. At least, it's clearly not rubbish in the way that, say, a Fred Olen Ray film is rubbish or a Don Dohler film is rubbish. You can't fault Mother!'s full-tilt committed performances or the grainy 16mm photography, or the way it builds its orgies of destruction not once, but twice, and presumably you can't fault it for doing exactly what Darren Aronofsky wanted to do. (That said, Fred Olen Ray movies always did exactly what he wanted.) But did Aronofsky want me to feel so angry and depressed by his film? Did he want me to leave the cinema feeling worse than I did leaving Fist Fight or Chips? And I've liked some of Aronofsky's films in the past: I liked Black Swan and Noah and The Fountain. Not this time, and I refuse to accept that it's entirely my fault. It's a divisive film, and the whole point of divisive films is that there are camps on both sides.
Okay, my initial response might have calmed down a bit since Friday afternoon, when I came out of the cinema absolutely hating the film with an almost tangible fury. But I can't feel that I've warmed to it over the weekend. Sure, it's demonstrably not a terrible film, but it made me feel terrible as I watched it and I still feel terrible towards it now. If that makes me an idiot, well, okay, you're entitled to that view. If that means I don't ever get to be a "proper" reviewer, so be it. It doesn't make me wrong. For me it remains a one-star film: obviously not rubbish (which is why I haven't tagged it as such) but among the most frustrating, upsetting and infuriating films of the last however many years. And not, as occasionally happens, in a good way.