I am an Aronovsky fan. Pi got me hooked, Requiem for a Dream proved he wasn't a one hit wonder, and Black Swan cemented him as a creative, inspiring director with a strong (and much needed voice). I can't speak on The Wrestler or on Noah (since I haven't seen either), and though I watched The Fountain, I was extremely disappointed at the amount of intellectual, and philosophical "headi-ness" that felt like an abstract idea being visually shared, at the expense of good story-telling, and substance. Similar to bad writing, when I read a novel that is full of abstract idea (telling, not showing) it's harder to relate to anyone in the story, because the abstraction and lack of specificity keeps the reader at a distance from narrative and far-removed from the characters living within that narrative. I feel very similarly about Mother! as I did about The Fountain, and as I do about badly written novels. It was kind of awful, misguided, and so very flat. If the goal is to tell a good story about a philosophical/existential experience (The Fountain), or personify a metaphor for Mother Earth, God, fame, the Bible (Mother!); it must be done in such a way that gets the audience on board. One way to do this is to humanize its characters so they don't fall flat, and so they are not abstract ideas, but personified ideas with relatable human emotions and flaws, otherwise they become passive and un-relatable. Even the best movies about "ideas" or "metaphors" featuring non-human characters, must have some element of humanity in them, that draws the viewer in, after all, humans created abstract ideas by intellectualizing raw human experience and emotions, so at the heart of every abstraction, there is something that was abstracted to begin with, and that source should be tapped into when trying to create something that is compelling.
Furthermore, even if your goal is to break all the filmmaking rules, turn them on their head, and say "F*ck with conventions!," (which is admirable, and frankly refreshing when done well) even then, it's more effective if the filmmaker can take the audience along on that journey, and be able to break those rules, while still maintaining an air-tight structure. Luis Buñuel was a master at this, Vera Chytilova, Jacques Rivettes, and many experimental filmmakers who are able to break conventions, and redesign structure, but who are only successful because their new self-defined structure is solid, and well-constructed, leaving audiences no way to argue against them, but rather absorb them and accept them as ground-breaking, experimental, and creative. In this case, however, Mother! felt like a an overly ambitious amateur film-school project with a huge budget, and A-list talent.
This is not to take away from Aronovsky's genius, but rather to humanize and accept that even the most authentic and creative auteurs can really f*ck things up, and this should really be alright. Almost all the best creators have had their fair share of flops. Polanski, Scorcese, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Lynch, The Coen Brothers...have all had their own brushes with shitty filmmaking, and yet, they are all still incredible filmmakers who have contributed so much to the medium. Likewise, Aronovsky is, no doubt, one of the best filmmakers of our generation, and yet Mother! was an awful film.
I went to the WGA screening of Mother! with little knowledge of what I was getting myself into, I assumed from the movie poster ---an exact replica of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby poster--- that it would deal with an ingenue pregnant woman as its protagonist, and would draw from Polanski's paranoid, and bizarre, deeply disturbed worlds.
Mother! however, failed to create the paranoia of Polanski, starting with it's "main" character "Mother" (Jennifer Lawrence), the most passive protagonist I have ever seen on screen, or on paper. It's hard to relate to such a passive protagonist, she might as well have been a stuffed animal, or a barbie doll, or a piece of furniture. Even if she really is personifying "Mother Earth," Mother Earth is not entirely a passive entity, and even if she were utterly passive, it is still the responsibility of the filmmaker --- if he wants to humanize a metaphor or "idea" into human form (aka into a flesh and blood character played by Jennifer Lawrence), he must make the character human enough, or "real" enough that the audience can embrace the metaphor. Even movies about robots (Wall-E) or about "Death" (The Seventh Seal), or identity (Persona), or Nihilism as a result of post-war's effects on women in the Czech Republic (Daisies). In fact, I would argue that some of the best movies ever made, have embedded subtle symbolism buried within them, however, herein lies the key, when the symbolism/personification is subtle, it works, however, when the film is so self-aware of its need to prove its own symbolism, then it makes the audience very self-aware as well, and alienates us from the potentially powerful realization of its intended symbolism, and hence defeating its purpose to begin with.
There were many references to Polanski and Buñuel in Mother!, and, yet none of the heightened, dark, sense of paranoia from Polanski was present in Mother!, nor was a "real" story in a surreal world (Buñuel) was ever truly present in Mother! either. Two of my favorite directors are in fact, Polanski and Buñuel, and among their films, Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Buñuel's Viridiana (1961) are among the creme of the crop. There were so much "tipping of the hat" to both of these films in Aronovsky's recent flop.
In Repulsion, Severine (played by the beautiful and talented Deneuve) experiences a severe descent into madness, fear, and paranoia, and the story is done in such a way, that we (the viewer) begin to question our own perceptions of what's real and what isn't, just as Severine is also questioning herself, thus we are taken into the headspace of the main character, and we go through the emotional experience/trauma with her. Unlike the character of Mother, Severine is in no way passive, or victimized despite her fragile state. But rather, she is constantly taking actions that continue to raise questions about her mental sanity, and that suck us into the terror, and fear that lies deep within her subconscious.
Aronovsky also references Rosemary's Baby (which he promises to do, from the release of the movie poster), with a similar allusion to satanic un-trustworthy strangers (that can't be trusted), wanting to take her baby. However, while in Rosemary's Baby there is a progression to this emotional realization, in Mother! it's instantaneous, and less about a refined pacing, and more with the intent to be sensationalist and grotesque (for grotesqueness' sake), which makes the moment absurd (not in a surreal and interesting kind of way), and cringe-worthy (not in an emotive kind of way, but rather cringe-worthy in a "really!?" kind of of way).
And, of course, there are also Cronenberg and Kaffka-esque references. Unfortunately, I cannot put images of these movie references side by side with images from Mother! because Aronovsky and Paramount have been so great about keeping these from leaking --- so as not to give up the ending/third act of the film, which is in essence, the un-earned "punch-line".
All of Franz Kafka's novels and short stories serve as metaphors for society, growing up in a world where he lacked the freedom to express himself openly, Kafka resorted to magical realism, metaphors, and symbolism to talk about larger issues. Cronenberg's The Fly is an americanized version of the Czech masterpiece Metamorphosis. In Kafka's novel, even as the man turns into an insect and is literally trapped in a room (much like Mother is trapped in that big old house) the reader can still relate to the human elements of the insect, of being trapped, of feeling small, of feeling not good enough, shame, humilliation, etc. In Mother! however, it is impossible to relate to the protagonist because she has almost no human characteristics that make us empathize with her situation.
Aronovsky's other obvious reference is to Buñuel, especially Viridiana but also with elements of The Exterminating Angel. I would argue that Viridiana is one of Buñuel's least surreal films, however, it does tell somewhat of a coming of age story, about this nun (Catherine DeNeuve) who, although she is very giving of herself, and often goes against her wishes (moves in with her creepy and obsessed uncle), she is still not a passive protagonist, she takes action from her experiences and perspectives.
A very specific scene in Mother! that attempted to be an homage to Viridiana, is when all the guests at the house are taking advantage of Mother. Similarly, in Viridiana, when her uncle is away, Deneuve's character invites the poor people of the town to eat at her uncle's opulent home. However, what she doesn't expect is that these people are not angelic, or appreciative of her good intentions, instead they destroy the home, steal, and take advantage of her. If you've seen Mother! then the plot line of Viridiana will sound very familiar, the only difference is that Viridiana invites the people into her home, and the catharsis/realization comes when she loses her naivite as a result of her actions, and their reactions. Her character inevitable is changed by her actions, and the actions of people around her, unlike the character of Mother who hardly changes, if at all.
Although in Viridiana, the character is "angelic" and naive, a nun who's been exposed to little of the world, and who accepts to live with a man she despises; her character still evolves as she becomes more and more aware of the world around her. She too, like mother, has a controlling, male figure in her life, whose rules she follows, but who also changes her. This change never occurs in Mother. No matter what this man does, what he says, Mother is unwaveringly passive, and flat, with little to no reaction, or effect on her character. Boring!
Also a nod to Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, an absurd story of a group of people who cannot leave a room after they've entered it. While everyone in Mother (except for Mother herself) is free to come and go as they please, people seem to be drawn to Mother's house, and they refuse to leave, instead they abuse it, and destroy it (like in Viridiana). In The Exterminating Angel, (unlike in Mother!) there seems to be a well, thought out purpose for why the characters cannot leave the room. This trope is not used to be sensationalist, or "different" but rather used very meticulously and with intention to provoke the characters and to serve the narrative. It is precisely the reason they cannot leave, that forces the uppidy bourgeoisie to shed their conventions becoming almost savage. This is an example of a use of symbolism and metaphor that exposes big questions about humanity.
This grotesque sequence of bourgeoisie women plucking and killing a chicken, is earned, as these characters start out in one place emotionally and evolve (or rather devolve) to this "primitive" and "uncivilized" state. The "punch-like" in this movie works, because everything is strategically designed to lead up to it; unlike in Mother! where nothing leads up to anything, and characters go unchanged and unmoved by the world around them.
So as much as Aronovksy has done a fabulous job at letting us (the viewer) know that he's seen a lot of great surrealist films (which don't necessarily follow narrative conventions), and while he's also constantly reminding us that he's familiar with cinematic paranoia masterpieces (all of which have very active protagonists), he unfortunately falls short in really delivering us the essence of those other films, and gives us a shallow world, with vague metaphors drowning in excess of violence for the sake of sensationalism.
I love films that break conventions. It is a common argument that it's time to break away from the existing Hollywood formulaic mold of film-making, however, if conventions, and rules are going to be broken, they must be done with intention, in a way that is actually evocative, mind-blowing, and thought-provoking. If done in a shallow, lazy way, then it won't help in changing the narrative, but on the contrary, it will cement the idea, that filmmakers should not stray from the formula.
I won't even go into the fact that this film has no unique or thought provoking take-away except for the hyper focus on showcasing the suffering of the Mother character as she is abused, belittled, berated, and ultimately destroyed. I won't go into the cinematography, which though I understand the reasoning/thinking behind the choices that were made, it was yet another part of the film that turned me off and kept me at a distance. I also won't go into all the other shallow characters and misrepresentations. I won't go into Jennifer Lawrence's constantly perfect hairdos. I absolutely won't delve into the archaic personifications of a marriage/relationship between a man and a woman, the power structure, misogyny, or even the fact that although the film claims to center around the Mother!, it is really Javier Bardem's character's story. I don't mind pushing the envelope and seeing oppressed people suffer, or representing misogyny, hatred and destruction, if it is done purposefully and with careful reasoning; but to perpetuate these views through visual violence, and take no social responsibility for them, or rather -- take very vague social responsibility, is not good enough, and is yet another reason why Mother! has failed.
In short, there was no character development, or depth/range for either Lawrence, or Bardem (not because they aren't fabulous actors, but because the script didn't lend itself to richness of characters). The story was deeply flawed, lazily written, with vague symbolism, it took itself too seriously, it had too many on-the-nose homages to other films that apparently inspired it, and it left me feeling apathetic to the sensational images that were presented before me for 2h1m. This is a case of an overly excited, and seasoned filmmaker that made an amateur film-school "experimental" project on a massive budget, and then complained that the reason it was was ill-received was not because it was bad, but rather because it was too much outside of Hollywood's formulaic conventions for people to appreciate it. Hopefully Aronovsky's actual persona is more open, and receptive to growth/change, than were the characters portrayed in Mother!; as this would allow for him to realize his errors, and weaknesses, strengthen his storytelling, and better be equipped to "break the Hollywood formula," as he moves forward in expressing his very unique, and creative point of view.
Lastly, I want to end with a question... In a film that was so ladened with symbolism, can anyone please answer, what the hell was that yellow powdered drink that Mother (aka Mother Nature? aka Gaia? aka Mary from the Bible?, aka (input any other metaphor here)?) was drinking supposed symbolize? Anyone?