mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)

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I don’t really like Darren Aronofsky. Requiem For a Dream is a bad and manipulative film that doesn’t represent any aspect of the phenomenology of addiction well in the slightest, Black Swan is just… awful. The Wrestler is good, but that’s almost entirely based on its performances. So I was surprised to walk out of mother! thinking to myself “that was…pretty good!”

I went into the screening as cold as possible and I want to afford that same ability to readers who have not yet seen mother! so I’ll keep things vague as possible and avoid a synopsis and just dive right in.

Perhaps the most chronologically theological aspect of mother!is not the litany of (one might suggest rather too) legible parallels to some of the Bible’s greatest hits. Rather, it is the fact that, when we begin, we are continuously offended by His words and actions, but soon enough find ourselves increasingly offended, as the film progresses, by His passivity, His silence, and His absence. Indeed, when The Shit Starts Going Down, despite the fact it’s supposedly all for Him, He is largely nowhere to be found. This is not an accident, but a decidedly conscious, and surprisingly balanced, perspective on God’s place within religious violence: it is not His doing, and he cannot necessarily help how people respond to His works, but its continuation is His inaction and for that He can be blamed.

Is mother! a subtle film? No. Aronofsky is not a subtle man. Is mother! a clever film? Also no; he’s not much of a clever man, either. mother!‘s philosophy is ultimately entirely stunted by the fact it appeals to the affective horror of anthropocentrism via the means of anthropomorphism and, consequently, can only display its disgust at humanity by rendering Mother Earth human. Intellectually speaking, this is a fairly unforgivable gaffe that cannot help but hollow the foundation of the film’s premise, to an extent that many critics have ended up taking a surprisingly literal interpretation of the film. In which case, one may consider mother! to be a welcome take on heterosexual age-gap relationships which would never normally raise an eyebrow in any other Hollywood film. Trouble for certain other, more negative, reviews is: Lawrence and Aronofsky have a real-life relationship of exactly the same difference as she and Bardem. Trouble for me is: Javier Bardem is ridiculously hot and, even if I had a problem with age-gaps (which I don’t), I would put pretty much every principle on hold were he a legitimate candidate for my affections. Honestly, though, I think it’s pretty rich for right-on discourse lovers who preach constantly about “self-crit” to then turn around and sneer at what one might well consider to be self-crit in action.
The framing, composition, camera work, acting and editing manage to achieve effects that would typically be considered mutually exclusive: mother! comes across as finely tuned yet campy, nasty yet affecting, jagged yet smooth. Certainly there are nods to Aronofsky’s precious efforts: the giallo-deferent glamorous archetypal villainy of Black Swan, the pseudo-documentarian camera style of The Wrestler, obviously the Genesis meditation of Noah, but perhaps most strikingly the swift subjective-universal (there’s those oxymorons again) degeneration of Requiem For a Dream. And yet, it still feels new. Well, it feels new for Aronofsky; not for cinema. The swift degeneration makes me want to compare it favourably to High-Rise though, yet again, I am reminded of We are the Flesh and its absolute brilliance. The most affective personal and successful theological aspects make me want to watch it as the middle film in a triple film, following Queen of Earth and preceding Hard to Be a God, though I feel like that might only reveal mother!‘s flaws all the more starkly. Nevertheless, it’s pleasant to come out of a film by such a crushingly basic-ass underarm-serving chin-stroker as Aronofsky and think that he may have actually made something interesting for once in his damn life.

 

⭐⭐⭐1/2

The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu, 2015)

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It is, of course, hard not to discuss The Revenant in terms of The Hateful Eight. Both were released the same day. I saw the latter on the Monday of this week, the former on the Friday. Both are set within the unforgiving snow territories of North America in the 1800s. Both are gaining a certain infamy for their respective degrees of brutality. Both encourage comparisons to earlier films.

However, whilst The Hateful Eight‘s relationship with cinephilia is what one must call, with an ever-deepening sigh, “postmodernism,” with its fairly cloying nods and winks to camera as it references exploitation, Western and horror films of varying obscurity to score geekdom points above all else, The Revenant‘s relationship with the wider world of cinema is of a traditional, subtler and considerably preferable sort.

Obviously, thematically, The Revenant‘s tale of a man more or less back from the dead, battling both the elements and nature red in tooth and claw, on a mission to avenge a lost loved one can be understood as something of a mixture of The CrowApocalypto, and All is Lost. Its magical realist relationship with its protagonist’s mortality in the context of First Nations territory conjures strong images of Dead Man. (There may also be comparisons to make to The Grey – having not seen The Grey, though, I wouldn’t know).

However, it is the formal elements of The Revenant that made the most impression on me as a cinephile. The roaming camera effect that effortlessly seems to document 360º action and follows characters – both lead and supporting – through water, fire, smoke and snow creates exactly the same sense of immersion within a fully extant universe that the late Aleksei German achieved so stunningly with Hard to Be a God. Meanwhile, the ever-so-slightly more fantastical elements of The Revenant, connecting existentialism, nature and spirituality in a way that exploits aestheticism without compromising humanity connects it to the oevre of Andrei Tarkovsky, by no means limited to Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice, certainly with flourishes of Akira Kurosawa throughout. The combination of all these elements held František Vláčil’s Markéta Lazarová immovably in my mind throughout the grand majority of The Revenant. It perhaps goes without saying that the very immensity of this project’s approach seems wholly Herzogian.

Especially when we consider the usual Oscar-bait, the certain element of snobbishness that has criticised The Revenant – particularly DiCaprio’s performance in it – can be understood, even forgiven. No, contrary to what some may think, suffering does not equal acting. DiCaprio’s performance reveals considerably more than pain; instead, we see the rapid and necessity devolution of a man into beast to survive a wilderness for he was not made. Certainly, there are avenues down which one can take this to understand a message regarding just whose land the settings can be considered. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s ability to survive the ordeal is founded upon a boldness and bravery we cannot see in any way connected to his white maleness – instead, we see a variety of skills we can connect most easily to his interaction with (and marriage within) the Pawnee tribe, and a variety of instincts that don’t seem human at all. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)’s brand of survivalism seems to be the polar opposite: one based upon selfish cowardice. It is only the Pawnee and Arikara in the film whose ability to withstand such hardship feels inherently assured.

To be sure, the message of The Revenant is complicated and not without flaws. It admittedly does feel rather White Man’s Burden, throughout. The magical realism of the film being tied exclusively to the portrayal of First Nations people, who at the end of the film step in to perform a naratologically necessary act that white morality will not allow Glass to perform, is less than ideal. One cannot help but feel The Revenant would also have been served better by having Glass’ late Pawnee wife (Grace Dove)- even if she did have to remain within the bonds of memory – were able to do something other than act as a levitating source of support in troubling times, repeating the same monologue over and over again. On a more basic level – a complaint that seems to be a reoccurring theme – Tom Hardy’s accent whilst playing Fitzgerald could have been considerably more intelligible.

However, the lack of Fitzgerald’s intelligibility does add a certain 3-dimensionality to the role. I can say that, beyond Bronson, Bane or Ronnie Kray, there is a certain something in Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald that makes this his scariest role. Perhaps it comes down to the relative absence of formalism in the portrayal. Though two of the three aforementioned roles were real people, it would be quite reasonable to suggest the performances were not. Caricatured accent aside, little scenery is chewed in Fitzgerald’s portrayal. We see an antagonist who is calculating, yes, but no more than he deems necessary for survival. He is a proletarian figure of world-weary cynicism who, when challenged on valuing money over his life, brilliantly responds “What life? Ain’t got no life. All I got’s a living.” Indeed, what is scariest about Fitzgerald is his position as an icon of how reasonable an executive decision burying a man alive, after having just killed his son, could in fact seem. It is impossible not to feel a degree of empathy and respect for every character in this film for their endurance in making it alive even to the opening credits, let alone beyond them. Between the harshness of nature, the sharpness of arrows, and the exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie, it is entirely reasonable to assume a different set of moral codes exist in the perception of The Revenant‘s characters.

So, assuredly, The Revenant‘s greatness does not lie in its originality. Rather, it lies in its honest-to-God attempt to lift up the blockbuster to a status to which audiences in 2016 never expect to see films on a Hollywood budget held. Hopefully, it may encourage audiences to seek out a Tarkovsky or a Viacil, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad their money will have been spent on a truly cinematic experience local multiplexes have not been built to host in a long, long time. And, for that, I am gratified.

****

Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)

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“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”

It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.

Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).

We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.

As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.

Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.

****1/2