mother!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Appropriately for a film entitled mother!, the first word uttered onscreen is ‘baby’. It’s Grace (Jennifer Lawrence), calling not to her child, but her big egotistical baby of a husband (Xavier Bardem), self-centred ‘Great Writer’ Eli, who has lost his inspiration and left the marital bed for a miserable wander outside their remarkable house. Renovated by her after a devastating and traumatic fire, from outside it looks amazing, though most of the time we experience it only from the inside. Glimpses of the outside world are from windows or open doors, and in the same restricted way our gaze is directed almost entirely through that of Grace, either from her viewpoint or focussing on her face and feeling her reactions. There’s the constant feeling that you’re not able to witness or judge anything for yourself. Many-sided, the house is reminiscent of the central hub of an old panopticon-style Victorian prison, designed so that every wing of the gaol was visible to central controllers. And here the house itself, lovely though it is, is the prison, ours and theirs, with its mellowly coloured and softly-lit rooms around a central staircase frustratingly only ever part-revealing themselves.

Knocks on the door of such a place always mean trouble, and here it comes in the form of Ed Harris’s ‘orthopaedic surgeon’, looking for a bed for the night. He seems a regular guy, though that’s a nasty cough he’s got, and he soon reveals himself to be a devoted fan of Eli, who jovially welcomes him in, somewhat against the instincts of his wife. The grip of a creeping unease is cracked open by the arrival of his wife the next morning. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer in enjoyably cynical Anne Bancroft form, who doesn’t take long getting tipsy and over-personal with the lady of the house. Now mayhem begins to take over as any power and control Grace might hold slips out of her fingers as her husband’s creative self starts to become renewed. The usual tropes of the bad house vibes that ensue – mysterious doors, odd sounds in the night, body parts in the toilet bowl, are suddenly cranked up by anarchic human behaviour, when the two Gleeson boys, Domhnall and Brian, as sons of the interloping couple, preposterously turn up to have a fight. WTF?? At this point you may feel the need to emit loud, unbelieving, nervous laughter. Save the muffled screams for later, because soon no nerve will be left unshredded, as Grace the interior decorator discovers the folly of over-thorough investigation of a blood stain, not to mention not properly bracing a sink (you just wait for that one).

What follows is very hard to sit through, partly because we feel so much that we’re inside the film, and the house, ourselves, identifying with Grace even as we egg her on to be more forceful. Some of the commonest anxieties get triggered – the invasion of our house (and personal space); the dark; bullying; and even the awkwardnesses of social etiquette – how do you tell the people your husband has invited that they’re not welcome if it’s in your nature to be polite? There’s a truly horrible claustrophobia as we long to get outside – the house, the cinema – as the breathless fury of the filming grabs hold of you, whirls you around in those spaces. The enclosed oppressiveness of Repulsion or Cul-De-Sac, with its black humour too, Rosemary’s Baby, even The Shining, with its blocked writer and a building itself a mute conniving witness to the horrors within, all are echoed here.

Like being consciously trapped in a dream you can’t shake yourself out of, you know it’s all preposterous. And how much more preposterous can it get?? Well lots. But when it comes to gut reaction, the preposterousness doesn’t matter, in fact it adds to the general unease – how far will this mad, inspired director go? Even when he seems to be ignoring  all rules of plot and bringing a same scenario back again, so you might for a moment think he’s blown it and doesn’t know where to go next, he pulls it off. His audacity is boundless, even while your sensible brain knows it’s all too much.

Bardem, an actor I often find too melodramatic, is for once perfect for the crazy, infuriating contrariness his role demands, and Lawrence, with her expressive, madonna face straight off a medieval fresco, yet still a face which we are used to seeing onscreen as feisty, bold and self-possessed, is ever watchable, conveying self-doubt, passive suffering and shyness, roused all too late, and turns us into her.

Many chins have been knowledgeably stroked in attempts to give serious meaning to this story. It’s overloaded almost to meltdown with metaphor and allegory – archetypal parent figures, the destructive quality of the creative process, the evils of celebrity, male ego, the unfulfillable demands of others, the spoiling of perfection by crass humanity, a feminist parable, an archetypal myth of birth and destruction… it goes on, but all adds to the circus, and the true delight is in recognising some of these but still loving the scariest switchback ride you’ll have for a long time. So fasten your seatbelts; it’s going be a bumpy night. You’ll need to sit for a few minutes as the credits pass, to catch your breath and hook your lower jaw back onto the upper one. And remember – it’s only a movie, and this is what movies can do.

Seen at Empire Cinema,  Sunderland, 15 September 2017

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London Symphony

Directed by Alex Barrett

In the 1920s a form of cinematic documentary arose which came to be called ‘city symphonies’. While literally ‘documenting’ the actuality of urban life in specific cities – Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Paris among others – they did far more, finding abstraction and emotion in the images themselves and utilising the montage technique of their juxtaposition, creating a new kind of poetic cinema. After the coming of sound the form all but disappeared with the new flowering of documentary using commentary or sound recorded in situ. Alex Barrett has taken us back to this early form with a black and white silent film in 4 movements accompanied by a score by James McWilliam, showing a London familiar but strangely distanced, at times exotic, and beautiful.

The film has no agenda other than providing a portrait of this city. Like Wordsworth’s Thames under Westminster Bridge, it flows at its own sweet will, segueing from old to new buildings, from the abstract patterns of brutalist architecture to printing blocks to phone boxes, from cycling to rowing to water, from tidy garden produce shows to food markets to a slick of vomit outside a door. From memorials for combatants to those for refugees.

The first movement is all urgency and movement, a changing city of ancient and modern buildings bedecked with cranes on its skyline, the trudging crowds in the tubes, transport and movement of those with something to do, somewhere to go, work or leisure. The second movement takes a more pastoral turn, with dreamy music and images of what you might think is the countryside. Wild life, parkland, thence to a produce show, figures, for the most part relaxed, in landscapes. There a solitude, rather than a loneliness, about the single figures Barrett‘s camera settle in on, a man on a park bench laughing at his phone, exercisers and walkers. In what is one of the few overtly political moments we go from luxury dining at Bibendum to a food bank where basics are ticked off on a list, packed up into bags and handed over, a sequence which shows only hands and moving bodies at work as briskly as the kitchen staff we’ve just seen preparing top end dishes.

Hands. The human hand is so busy, preparing food, gesticulating, blessing, paying, working keyboards, boxing, as busy as the feet tramping the tube escalators or park paths or pounding the pavements shopping. But just when the franticness becomes almost oppressive, along comes a serene view of water, a graceful building, or the permanence of a sculptured figure of public art, a row of shop models, or a religious image, which seem to look gravely out over the dashing mortals with a knowingness of mortality. London, the city, is there, made by us but destined to survive us. It’s seen it all before, and it knows how futile the getting and spending, the urge towards constant movement, is. If the spirit of Wordsworth lies within the film, so does that of Eliot, with the crowds flowing over the bridges, so many, and the ‘Teach us to sit still’ of the sections moving between the varied religious centres in the third movement, each with their quiet contemplation. This extends to temples of culture, where museums both engage their visitors in thought and do their own version of the marketing the shopping-bag-carrying hordes have fallen victim to. Meanwhile in the libraries, the books representing wisdom stand dizzyingly row on row like architecture themselves.

In the fourth movement we’re back again in the urgent crowds, crossing the river on bridges, under it through tunnels, on boats and trains. And then more water, the rain, the city at the mercy of nature, up go the umbrellas and on go the macs as we plod along the puddled pavements. Finally comes the night, beautiful and exciting, shiny with promise in the dark, sordid with its clubs, thrilling with its theatreland, in a nice classic old Hollywood-style montage of theatre signs, promising the inexhaustable nature of the city as glamorous entertainer. A time when people come together. Shame there’s nothing of those in the box you step over when you leave the theatre, but maybe that would be too easy a point to make. Then back home down the urban street, and the film ends on the image of something from beyond the city, an urban fox, glaring then stealing away, unafraid. Within and all around the city there is still the natural world, untouchable.

Much as the film is a hymn to London, it’s even more one to city life. And whether you love that or hate it you can’t fail to be moved. There are few of the standard ‘tourist’ come-ons to the city, and one of the joys is to recognise little obscure corners that are familiar, or pick up clues to search out what you see. So much is intensely beautiful – many of the images would make terrific individual photographs in themselves – and it rewards a second viewing, when you spot not just its subtle motifs but also the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quirks. What’s more it has an intense empathy with its figures. A city is made up of its built and living components, and though we may look and act as a crowd, every individual touched on, from the man in the inexplicable hat in the tube concourse to the one who has foraged for sticks on his walk in the park, exists in his own world. And that thrilling nausea that sometimes comes over you as your train approaches the seething centre of the Great Wen, a kind of panic at the enormity and complexity of the city, is here thrill you too.

For screenings of the film (alas, none in the North East) see http://www.londonsymphfilm.com/