Everyone loves Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance in a tiny independent film called Winter’s Bone launched her into stardum like a rocket, landing her an Oscar nomination for her first big-screen lead. Within a year she was working with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson, had landed a comic-book role in the highly-acclaimed X-Men: First Class and beat most of the actors of her generation to the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games. She won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and became everyone on the planet’s dream BFF with her self-deprecating sense of humour and no-nonsense intelligence. But what is her latest film, mother!, which sent critics into meltdown last week at the Venice Film Festival?
One key to figuring it out is that it comes from Darren Aronofsky, the director behind relatively mainstream films like The Wrestler and Black Swan, and much more out-there ones like The Fountain, Pi, Noah and Requiem For A Dream. He dabbles in surreal situations and huge questions about the meaning of life, the origins of creation, the futility and dangers of seeking to change ourselves and the general heaviness of, like, being, man. His films are frequently divisive (the staff of Grazia’s movie-mag cousin Empire had stand-up fights about whether The Fountain is heavenly or horrific) but they’re generally memorable, and he draws the best actors to work with him. In this case, he and Lawrence are also said to be dating, despite the 21 year age gap between them.
Which brings us to their shared film, mother!. Lawrence plays the unnamed and much younger wife of Javier Bardem’s poet, who’s struggling to complete – or even start – his latest work. Since no-one has any names, let’s call them Mother and Him; that’s what the official credits uses. She occupies herself renovating their countryside dreamhouse, a home that he’s lived in all his life but which was recently devastated by fire. Their existence seems quiet and maybe even idyllic – at least for Him, because Mother is devoted to his needs – until a stranger (Ed Harris) turns up at the door one night and Him invites the man in. Soon the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up, followed by their two sons (real-life brothers Domnhall and Brian Gleeson), and the idyll is threatened.
That’s probably as much plot as we want to go into, but things soon go off in a big way. If you’re rolling your eyes at Lawrence once again playing the love interest to a man in his 40s (it’s fascinating to watch films like Joy and American Hustle and ask yourself what age directors think the actress is), rest assured that the age gap is at least a plot point this time, and the power dynamic between the couple really matters. In fact, the trailer makes the whole thing look like a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, the Roman Polanski movie where Mia Farrow’s mum-to-be discovered that she was unwillingly pregnant with the antichrist, but Aronofsky hasn’t made anything nearly so sensible. This has a much grander scope, and while you might well call it grandiose and even ridiculous at times, you can’t fault their ambition.
You also can’t fault Lawrence’s performance. She’s onscreen in every single scene, with the camera either shooting over her shoulder to show what she’s seeing, or focused tightly on her increasingly worried face. With a less accomplished actress the film would get unbearable after about five minutes; even those who generally dislike mother! will have to acknowledge that Lawrence can hold the attention a good deal longer than that.
To discuss what’s going on any further than that arguably takes us into spoiler territory (it’s hard to be sure given the film’s general weirdness), so if you worry about such things then stop reading now and come back later, OK?
The best advice is to refresh your memory of Judeo-Christian creation stories before booking a ticket. Yes, really: the most likely explanation for the whole thing, one supported by those gorgeous painted posters and a poem by Rebecca Solnit handed out at press screenings has major Creation overtones. In this reading, Lawrence’s character isn’t just a young and rather downtrodden wife to an older, patriarchal and even abusive man. She’s actually Mother Nature, there to represent Earth / the entire universe. And this older, stronger, creative husband who’s ordering her about? Well, he’s standing in for God. Yes, actual Jehovah, Yahweh or however you want to name him. The two troublemakers brought into their home, only to screw things up and get themselves tossed out? Adam and Eve. And their sons? Cain and Abel. And so on. You can extend the metaphor as far or as little as you want, really, but it is about as big a subtext as it’s possible to get.
That’s not to say that the creation myth is necessarily the only thing going on. There’s a section featuring police SWAT teams, out-and-out warfare and madness that could be read as a critique of US foreign and domestic policy, and some cult-like behaviour that has got to be a dig at organised religion. One critic I spoke to had a fascinating theory that it’s all an Inside Out-style journey through the mind, with a war between the conscious and subconscious embodied by Lawrence and Bardem respectively. And there has to be a feminist reading about the power dynamic between Lawrence and Bardem’s characters, the way she is suppressed by him and the way that she fights back, and also about the dynamic between Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Woman, a much more mysterious and sexy figure (and how great is it to see Pfeiffer back on the big screen)
Whether you love or hate the film it’s undeniable that, despite being an Oscar winner and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Lawrence is still swinging for the fences. She could very easily retire and live the rest of her life in comfort; she could trade in her fame for a series of high-paid rom-coms or action movies; she could just sell cosmetics for the next decade and not worry about anything else. But she’s clearly still pushing herself, trying new challenges and working with creative types who will make her work harder. Say what you like about mother!, but Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t put a foot wrong, and the film just shows once again why we love her drive, her smarts and her absolute brass balls.
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