symbolism

All posts tagged symbolism

Mother! and the Art of Sacrifice

Published September 28, 2017 by rmpixie

mother! (2017, 2 hrs, 1 min.)

 

Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!  Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto; and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.

A married couple live in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home; yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and Him (Javier Bardem).
Photo credit: IMDb

When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the disturbing nature of the film, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from some earlier discussion during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character only know as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence, but I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the film and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. My final verdict, although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.

There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology PhD students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion.  Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, there is a common thread that shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.

*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*

As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary.  Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors, and I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many an artist or writer wants to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.

Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification that is needed to feed the creativity of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film, and like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but here there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary, in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male, that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored, and when she does have a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons, to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and who treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit is acknowledged but not heeded and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this over and over again, as she sacrifices herself not as a victim but as a martyr and saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.

Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork that was reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective and we witness the action along with her. We were also in the dark with her, getting no clues as the audience, save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.

I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot; a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the word of the writer. Those who know me, know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I had the sense that Mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.

I really can’t tell you how to react to Mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something that is unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.

 

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The Nightmares of Horsehead

Published May 21, 2015 by rmpixie

horsehead

Horsehead (2014, 1 hr, 29 mins)

I’ve always been interested in dreams and their meanings.  Oftentimes I have tried to remember my nocturnal subconscious wanderings, and most of the time I can’t, but when I do, it is usually in reoccurring settings and always unsettling.  Horsehead takes you one step further as lucid dreaming becomes a doorway to night terrors and family secrets.

Jessica (Lily-Fleur Pointeaux) is a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares.  In order to conquer them, she ends up studying the psycho-physiology of dreams.  She is summoned back home because of her grandmother Rose’s death, and is more than uncomfortable when she realizes her grandmother’s body is kept in the bedroom next to hers for the wake.  After a disturbing dream where Rose (Gala Besson) gives her a cryptic message, Jessica is prompted to use lucid dreaming techniques (where one is aware of what occurs in their dreams) to get to the bottom of what becomes a spiraling, surreal discovery of herself and her family secrets.

From the infamous Freddy Krueger and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Inception and The Cell, dreams have been great fodder for horror and the fantastical, portrayed as both campy and high art, but with Horsehead, it is almost a perfect balance of the absurd and artistic.  I was first drawn in when I saw a film clip and heard the scoring by Benjamin Shielden.  Jarring dub-step/breakbeat buzzing along with the voiceover of Jessica’s professor/boyfriend as he describes detailed instructions to lucid dreaming was something I hadn’t seen before.  It was different for sure, and the skillful editing by Frédéric Pons made Jessica’s dreams all the more compelling.

Director Romain Basset did an amazing job leading the audience down the rabbit hole as Jessica’s dreams became more disturbing and revealing.  His use of symbolism resonated with psychological significance as Jungian references involving animals and religion all came into play without being too overbearing, the most obvious being the ominously creepy Horsehead creature itself-the harbinger of death or perhaps a literal representation of a nightmare.  Charles Perrault’s Red Riding Hood was also a prominent theme with Jessica, her grandmother and a wolf guide; a sinister interpretation of the popular fairy tale.

The sets were quite beautiful and simple, pulling from Henry Fuseli’s famous gothic “The Nightmare” painting.  This eerie piece of art combined with the dark red and pale blue colour palette and stylish cinematography elevated the film’s old-school giallo feel.  And speaking of giallo, Jessica’s mother Catelyn was played by Catriona MacColl, who was also in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, while her step-father Jim was played by Murray Head, the musician behind the 80’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”.  All the performances were great, especially Pointeaux, who held her own with the veteran cast.  My only issue with the film was Jessica’s grandfather Winston (Fu’ad Aït Aattou), and his role as, from what I can gather, a cult leader of some sort.  There was a whole back story that I wanted to see more of, and perhaps the explanation of the age discrepancy between Jessica and her mother.  I wasn’t sure if all this was meant to be ambiguous because of the dream logic, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it.

Romaine Basset’s first feature-length film was an artistic triumph.  If you enjoy surreal, well-made independent horror, check out Horsehead.

Fangoria’s exclusive clip that drew me in!

And the official trailer:

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