TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new surreal horror film "Mother!" - that's mother with an exclamation point - is the seventh feature by the writer-director Darren Aronofsky. It's set in a large country house where a young woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself under siege by unwanted guests. The film also features Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Darren Aronofsky's work is brilliant and irritating. Few filmmakers have his talent for inducing druggy (ph) states. In films like "Requiem For A Dream" and "Black Swan," he creates fever dreams in which you can't tell what's real and what's fantasy or if there's even a meaningful difference in a world where reality is so subjective. My problem is that Aronofsky doesn't seem to want to entertain you. He wants to infect you. He doesn't develop his premises so much as escalate them, piling on more and more until you think your head might split.
Aronofsky's new film is called "Mother!" - with an exclamation point. By rights, it should have 10 exclamation points. It begins with its title character's immolation. We see her flesh bubble as flames erupt around her. Is it a dream, a vision of the future? Then Mother, the name by which Jennifer Lawrence's character is identified, wakes up to find herself alone in bed in her rambling country house, her husband, a writer played by Javier Bardem, having gone for a walk. We learn that the writer - or Him, as he's called in the credits - once lost everything in a tragic fire and that Mother saved him. He calls her his inspiration.
But now it seems he's getting restless. He wants other sources of inspiration. And soon enough, company arrives, first in a trickle, later a deluge. Jennifer Lawrence is on screen in nearly every shot, the camera hugging her face or trailing behind her. She looks young, her skin so smooth, it's like she's newly hatched. It's not spelled out she's pregnant. But she rubs her belly a lot, and the house is a surreal mirror of her gestation.
She presses her palms against walls which palpate and show a beating embryonic heart. Her discomfort is always in the foreground, especially with the arrival of a man identified as Man and played by Ed Harris, who says he's a doctor and promptly invades her space with insinuations, incessant smoking and a violent cough. The husband is soon joined by his wife, Woman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who's even more invasive.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOTHER!")
MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Woman) Why don't you want kids?
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Mother) Excuse me?
PFEIFFER: (As Woman) I saw how you reacted earlier. I know what it's like when you're just starting out, and you think you have all the time in the world. And, you know, you're not going to be so young forever. Have kids. And you'll be creating something together. This is all just setting.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
PFEIFFER: (As Woman) Oh, you do want them.
EDELSTEIN: It's nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a juicy part, but those lines are so obvious. They're camp. The first half of "Mother!" feels like a portentous theater piece tricked out with gothic horror effects - bumps and floorboard groans and teakettle shrieks. It also recalls Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby," in which a diabolical group turns its attention on a woman's pregnancy. But this particular group keeps growing and growing and growing until the house is like the Marx Brothers' stateroom, only with more blood and fewer laughs.
There's no way to consider "Mother!" as a whole without addressing its true theme, which only emerges in the last few minutes. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that the "Rosemary's Baby" comparisons are misleading, that Aronofsky's focus isn't really on a woman estranged from her body. His focus is on the creative process of an artist very much like himself, one who puts his characters and perhaps the performers who play them through hell. The movie is like a meta continuation of "Black Swan," its gaze on both the frenetic performer and the one pulling her strings.
Frankly, I thought "Black Swan" was ridiculous. But I admired the virtuoso execution of its very dumb premise. "Mother!" I don't admire. It's daring, ambitious and a tour de force. But it's also grandiose, self-aggrandizing and interminable. It takes Jennifer Lawrence, a tough, smart, funny actress, and turns her into a doll to be tortured. I'm not surprised there were boos at the Venice Film Festival premiere. Having been assaulted for two hours, some of the audience wanted to give those bad vibes back.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Just a reminder that Monday on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Hillary Clinton about her new campaign memoir. We'll talk about her reactions to candidate and President Donald Trump, the chants of lock her up, Russian interference in the election, Comey and the emails. But I'll start by sharing with her my takeaway from the part of our previous interview that went viral, the part about how she came to support federal marriage equality. My takeaway is probably not what you think it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "FRASQUITA SERENADE")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "FRASQUITA SERENADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.