An allegory, wrapped in fright

An allegory, wrapped in fright

Doesn’t this look like where people come to get fired?” Jennifer Lawrence was in a bland hotel conference room in Toronto, 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 phone: “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 doesn’t even leave the house, was a departure from the flinty, adventurous heroines that she is known for. “I’ve never felt so insecure,” she said.

What changed? “Nothing,” Lawrence said jokingly. “We wrapped the movie, and I’ve been sweating bullets ever since.”

The Dark Lord materialised moments later. It’s not an ill-fitting nickname, at least cinematically. Onscreen, Aronofsky has conjured up all manner of ghoulish misbehaviour and grotesqueries in Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. 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.

On the surface, it’s about a couple, Lawrence and Javier Bardem, in a rambling, secluded Victorian house. He’s 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 won’t leave. All the symbolism is in service of one grander idea, the allegory that moved Aronofsky to write the script in an uncharacteristically prolific five-day stretch. “I just pounded through it, kind of like a fever dream,” he said.

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.”

Aronofsky favoured an unsuspecting audience, the better to enable interpretations, or astonish.

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. Aronofsky, an environmentalist who’s 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.”

Alternative interpretations abound, though, including Bardem’s. He acknowledged the environmental symbolism but said that for him, the idea that resonated the most was what he called “the birth of a religion as a cult,” which divides more than it unites. Playing God was a stretch, he said. “I couldn’t relate, humanly speaking,” he said. “But every time I went back to that allegory, I found my wisdom.”

Other views lean on the relationship between the older, brilliant but narcissistic artist and his adoring, if unfulfilled, gorgeous young partner. Bardem is 48, the same as Aronofsky; Lawrence is 27. Aronofsky bristled at the suggestion that the screen dynamic might be perceived as mirroring that of auteur and megastar in real life. “How could it? Our relationship didn’t start until after the film happened,” he said. “You know, we just had a great time together, and that’s it.”

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. “I’ve never had to go that dark,” she said, even in the similarly transgressive child-reaping Hunger Games. In the days leading up to that Mother! scene, she started panicking, she said, and losing her breath. She knew she needed a way to decompress.

Voilà: the Kardashian tent, a getaway stocked with gumballs and photos of the reality stars, with their shows playing on a loop. “That was, for me, the most disturbing part of the movie,” Aronofsky said. But Lawrence hardly used the tent; filming the disturbing 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. “I was screaming at you, ‘It’s not real, it’s not really going on!’” Aronofsky said. “Which she knew.”

Despite all his efforts, Aronofsky wasn’t fretting about viewers missing the point. “I can’t spoon-feed, I just don’t do that,” he said. “My job, first and foremost, is to entertain and scare the audience.”

Lawrence, though, cared: For her, the message had to reverberate, deeply. “It’s a hard movie to watch,” she said. “I’ve watched it and I was like, my brothers can’t see this. And there are moments where you go, why? Why take it that far? And for me, the answer comes afterwards, after the images are burning so bright, and you’re left with that feeling, that visceral feeling — that’s why.”

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