An opening close-up of the staring eyes of a woman (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) whose cheeks are blistering as she burns alive prompts the thought that this is a pretty hardcore logo even for a boutique sub-label of a major motion picture company … but the image turns out to be a tiny prologue for writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s arthouse horror movie, in which Jennifer Lawrence – a young, childless wife when we meet her, but still the Mother of the title – makes the traditional gothic mistake of marrying a saturnine, demanding older husband – Javier Bardem as a world-famous poet, which is a surreal notion in itself – and moving into his impressive but dilapidated mansion, which is isolated from the world (an overhead shot shows no access road or vehicles) and needs a great deal of restoration (which she has to handle on her own). There are echoes, of course, of Rebecca, Gaslight and Jane Eyre … though this also keeps evoking 1970s novels which became films, Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings and Stephen King’s The Shining, with a streak of the absurd that brings in Ionesco and Polanski, as the couple’s space is repeatedly invaded and the heroine is presumed upon, taken advantage of, abused and potentially martyred to such a degree that Lars von Trier would think the misery piled on her was excessive.
Things start with the arrival of a coughing man (Ed Harris) who claims to have thought the house was a bed and breakfast – when the poet offers without consulting his wife to put him up for the night, he keeps up with small transgressions that might be excused by his illness … then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up, oozing with seemingly motiveless loathing for the younger woman and constantly needling. When a treasured keepsake in the poet’s study – the sole relic of a fire which once almost destroyed the mansion – is broken by the invaders, he boards the room up but doesn’t throw the visitors out. Then the couple’s sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) arrive in succession, in the midst of an argument about inheritance, and re-enact the story of Cain and Abel in the front room, leaving a bloody wound in the floor that pulses and peels (the house seems to have internal organs). After the murder, which doesn’t bring any cops to the house to complain that Lawrence has scrubbed the crime scene, a horde of mourners arrive and hold a wake that gets out of hand.
Aronofsky’s previous film was his odd take on Noah, and a certain Biblical or fable-like air hangs over this one … with nameless characters stuck with labels that sort of make sense in retrospective (they’re only identified in the end credits) – the Cupbearer, the Bumbler, the Zealot, the Fool, the Pisser, the Herald (who’s actually the poet’s editor-publisher), the Good Samaritan, the Devourer, etc. In the context of the film, Lawrence’s character is stuck on the wheel of recurring cycle or curse – but Aronofsky’s tactic is to keep reminding us of other oft-told tales, stripping this one of any specificity but Lawrence’s face and willingness to suffer without end. Lawrence is treated like a servant, an interloper in her own house or aggressively hit on by a creep who calls her an ‘arrogant cunt’ when she turns him down. Malicious damage is also done to a sink, which leads to the heroine discovering bricked-up extra chambers in the cellar (‘in my Father’s house, there are many mansions’) that made me wonder whether Aronofsky was a particular admirer of the Lucio Fulci of The House by the Cemetery.
In the second act, Lawrence is pregnant and Bardem has written a new poem – the bad experience with the invading family spurs the poet to acts of violent love and creation. Just as she knows the night after coitus that she’s knocked up, his poem seems transmitted to his publisher (Kirsten Wiig) and the world once he’s written it in blotchy ink on a single sheet of paper. The bloody boards are replaced and the house is nearly restored when a larger horde of worshipful devotees descend and an orgy of bliss escalates into a riot in the basement, with summary executions, cannibalism, acts of extreme transgression, shoot-outs, mob violence, etc. Cadaverous Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) stalks this section of the film as a sinister high priest. Any pretence to naturalism or taking place in the real world has long gone, though flights of fantasy like this can be found in mainstreamers like Stephen King (1408) as well as outlier works like High-Rise, The Exterminating Angel or James Ivory’s Savages. Many audiences might get off the train well before this, but the horrors are as vivid as they are ridiculous.
Underneath the quasi-religious myth of this old dark house drama seem to lie everyday irritations – you get a sense Aronofsky must have heard some uncomfortable things during couples therapy in the amazingly unflattering depiction of the toll on a decent woman taken by living with a generation-older genius (‘you didn’t love me but you loved that I loved you’) and the exaggerated-to-infinity-but-still-credible vision of what it’s like to live with but be shut out of the creative process in all its silliness and cruelty. Even the business about the myriad tiny discourtesies inflicted by strangers and friends resonates with anyone who’s ever thrown a party and got fed up with the guests who break precious things or simply won’t go home when it’s time to clear up. Bardem wisely underplays the self-regarding Great Man, whose worst aspect his a universal generosity which means that he doesn’t prioritise those to whom he owes the most, and Lawrence – who is often caught centre-screen by the camera, hustling to clear up mess or fix an injury without thanks – is exhaustingly good in what ought to be a career-defining role.