(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Whew—In today’s bland unchallenging environment for movies aimed at the multiplex, it’s almost refreshing do see a film designed to divide audiences. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! may be a lot of things (and I suspect that it may not even understand what it is, and may offer deliberate wild goose chases) but it’s certainly not made to be safe, likable or bland. Conceived on a deliberately metaphoric register, it does not take refuge in mimetic realism or conventional plotting: it’s metaphors piled upon metaphors, with Christian symbolism blended with horror-movie visuals, audience-alienating images and a steadfast refusal to offer anything like explanation or comfort. It’s very pretentious and charmingly daring at once, challenging audiences to dislike it. The film has more emotional than narrative meaning, and that can lead to some profoundly self-contradictory feelings about the film in the same reviewer. Reading about Mother!, I was convinced that I would hate it: I don’t react well to non-narrative films, I’m far too quick to label experimental work as pretentious, and the multiplicity of interpretations about the film had me rolling my eyes—especially as the Bible metaphors were being sized up for fitting. But watching it was far easier than I expected—there’s a progressively frantic rhythm to Mother!, and the fascination of seeing what was going to happen next (especially in the film’s most nightmarish moments) easily outweighed the desire to have it make sense, especially once properly forewarned that the film escapes most rational interpretations. While I know that there’s a lot of what Mother! tries to do in experimental arthouse cinema, I rarely see those films, and they don’t usually have the means (the name actors, the special effects budget, or Aronofsky’s expertise as a writer/director) to execute their full vision. And Mother! is indeed about a highly personal and idiosyncratic direction. I actually dislike quite a bit of what writer/director Aronofsky’s is doing here—I think that his use of Jennifer Lawrence compounds the growing exasperation I’ve got with her overexposure (including her being usually too young for the roles she’s being asked to play, although this may not count in a fable such as here), I think that he’s deliberately creating false leads in an attempt to create perceive depths, and I think that the violence goes too far. And yet, and yet, I do end up with a growing liking of the result, even as I’ve renounced to even try to make sense of it. Mother! remains a defiantly unusual ride, and those are all too rare in multiplexes nowadays.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) When Noah was announced as heralding the return of the biblical epic, I’m not sure anyone quite expected… this. Both faithful to the letter of the Flood and almost crazily unhinged as a fantasy film, Noah is certainly a bold bet by writer/director Darren Aronofsky. He brings old-testament back thanks to a somewhat unique interpretation of angels fallen to Earth, introduces conflict among the Ark, meanders for two minutes in presenting a single-shot take on evolution, supposes a pre-Flood industrial society… it’s ambitious and scattered and impressive and exasperating at once, the film never quite jumping where one expect it to go. Questions of humanity’s survival are bandied about, Russell Crowe goes brilliantly crazy at times, the building (and stuffing) of the Ark is handled in a semi-plausible fashion (given the existence of giant rock-monsters and sleeping potions). As far away from blockbuster film as a reported 150 million dollar budget can allow, Noah is a definitive oddity coming from a major studio and the kind of flawed movie that makes a better impression than more successful, but more restrained ones. It suggests (especially when juxtaposed with 2014’s Exodus) that in adapting classic bible stories it’s best to go as wild as possible. Yet for all of its deviations of reality and borrowings from fantasy epic film, Noah does feel relatively respectful to at least the ideas of the Old Testaments… while delivering a big dose of wonder along the way. Not bad at all, even though you may struggle to explain why, exactly, Noah feels so interesting.
(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy. That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her. It doesn’t end well… or does it? This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture. Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper. It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions. Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever. But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft. As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum. Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.