Mother!, a divisive film that made its star freak out

Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem (both above), is an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick.
Mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem (both above), is an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick.PHOTO: PARAMOUNT PICTURES

TORONTO • "Doesn't this look like where people come to get fired?" Jennifer Lawrence was in a bland hotel conference room here, waiting for Darren Aronofsky, the writer-director of her new drama, Mother!.

It was a few hours before the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Aronofsky, her boyfriend, was running late.

"Where is he? I'll call him," she said and spoke into her cellphone: "Call 'The Dark Lord'."

She was kidding (probably) and just as typically unfiltered about the experience of making Mother!.

"I really freaked out before this one," she said. "I thought I'd been miscast."

Her starring role, as the unnamed "mother", an earthy wife who does not even leave the house, was a departure from the flinty, adventurous heroines she is known for. "I've never felt so insecure," she said.

What changed? "Nothing," she said jokingly. "We wrapped the movie and I've been sweating bullets ever since."

The Dark Lord materialised moments later. It is not an ill-fitting nickname, cinematically. Onscreen, Aronofsky has conjured up all manner of ghoulish misbehaviour and grotesqueries in Requiem For A Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010).

Mother!, an ambitious parable hidden in a horror flick, tops them easily. What starts as a home invasion-psychological thriller ends in flaming nightmare surrealism, stuffed with themes that divided, and mystified, critics.

"Mother! will likely be 2017's most hated movie," declared the Verge, while others called it "an unparalleled achievement".

"It's a hoot," A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times.

Even with the benefit of two Oscar winners in a usually sure-fire genre and the frisson of a romance between the director and the leading lady, Mother! underperformed its modest box-office estimates after opening on Sept. 15.

But if it alienates mass audiences, it could also be the slow-burn conversation piece of the year, with high-profile defenders including celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Star Wars director Rian Johnson and comedian Chris Rock.

On the surface, it is about a couple, Lawrence and Javier Bardem, in a rambling, secluded Victorian house. He is a poet, with one major hit but troubled by writer's block; she is renovating their home, forever tidying up.

Their placid life is dismantled by hordes of uninvited guests who will not leave. All the symbolism - packed like a Russian nesting doll, with religious iconography, celebrity culture and military-industrial-state overtones - is in service of one grander idea, the allegory that moved Aronofsky to write the script in an uncharacteristically prolific five-day stretch.

But the allegory seems to have eluded many viewers and Aronofsky and Lawrence disagreed about how much to reveal. "He wants people to go in blind," she said, which she felt was a shame.

"You're going to miss all of the detail and all of the brilliance behind the whole movie," she said. "My advice is to understand the allegory."

Thematic spoilers ahead, but rest assured that even if you absorb them, the movie will throw curveballs. Mother! is about Mother Earth (Lawrence) and God (Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamouring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. The movie is about climate change and humanity's role in environmental destruction.

The action takes place on the biblical sixth day and follows that timeline. "You have the creation of people, you have the creation of religion itself, people reading the same writing and arguing over its meaning, false idols," Lawrence said.

She got the religious references immediately. "I was a Bible nerd - Bible study every Sunday," she said.

Aronofsky, an environmentalist who is active with the Sierra Club, pitched her the concept, which she liked, yet she was still taken aback by the full vision in the script, which wreaks unyielding, gruesome havoc on her character.

"When I first read it," she said, "I didn't even want it in my house. I thought it was evil, almost."

It drew her because she had never encountered anything like it. She said: "I agreed with the film's message wholeheartedly. It's an assault and it needs to be."

The demands on Lawrence were substantial: In the two-hour film, she is in close-up for 66 minutes. Even the sounds of the ravaged house - like creaking floorboards - are her voice, digitally manipulated.

And a harrowing sequence near the end of the film took a toll.

Filming the scene, she hyperventilated, tore her diaphragm and had to be taken to the infirmary and put on oxygen. Recounting this, the couple still seemed a little shellshocked.

Aronofsky said: "I was screaming at you, 'It's not real, it's not really going on.' Which she knew."

Lawrence said: "I knew." She looked over at him. "And then you're like, we've got to go do it again."

Aronovsky said sheepishly: "Once you calmed down. Just because we hadn't quite gotten it yet."

"It's unlike any performance I've captured before," he added. Her breakdown is onscreen.

NYTIMES

•Mother! is showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Mother!, a divisive film that made its star freak out'. Print Edition | Subscribe