Two new arrivals at Oxford University, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin), both from privileged backgrounds but opposites on the political spectrum, are recruited for the exclusive Riot Club.
The Riot Club attempts to create conflicting feelings in the audience, first seducing us along with Miles into the society’s joyous camaraderie before shocking us by revealing its underpinnings in violent, privileged, male rage. (Alistair even says to a pub landlord, in a typically on-the-nose exchange, “You think you don't like me. News for you. You fucking love me. You'd like to be me.”)
However, unlike some of the great recent portrayals of the hedonism of “late capitalism” (The Wolf of Wall Street), the Riot Club lifestyle is never really that convincing, desirable or accessible. It’s too rooted on one hand in old traditions (Oxford heritage, the old boys’ club) and on the other in bog standard British lad culture (hazing, drinking rituals).
While anyone can booze it up, no-one in the audience can ever be a part of the Riot Club, and the film simply isn’t perceptive enough about the complex way class identity works in this country to understand what that means.
It doesn’t help that the colour scheme is that combination of blue and yellow that’s come to dominate a certain subgenre of British drama. Whether the film has been lit this way or tweaked in post, it renders environments ugly and indistinguishable from each other, be they an historic Oxford dorm room or a pub in the countryside.
Director Lone Scherfig occasionally reaches for satire - an impromptu National Anthem here, hints of ‘Jerusalem’ in the score there - but it lacks a clear focus. (For example, the use of ‘Jerusalem’ in Sightseers, connecting the beauty of the landscape with the savagery of the murders that take place there, is far more successful.)
The ending aims for chillingly cynical but lands with a thud; this was all covered long ago, and with far more flair, in If....
When Janey (Sarah Jessica Parker) moves to Chicago, the home of her favourite show Dance TV, new friend Lynne (Helen Hunt) encourages her to audition.
This is, in some respects, Douglas Sirk for the ‘80s: entire night time scenes are bathed in purple light; impossibly hazy gyms are punched through with shafts of artificial sunlight; heightened emotions run rampant.
The female gaze takes centre stage. Janey’s dance partner Jeff (Lee Montgomery) is introduced topless, playing basketball; when he is wearing a shirt, typically, it’s sleeveless. Meanwhile, the girls wear Catholic school uniforms but their clothes are always practical, never sexualised. (The main couple are referred to, based on their dress, as Rebel Without a Cause meets The Sound of Music. This film is nothing if not self-aware.)
Janey and Lynne's friendship is a bond formed through music and dance but also fashion. The two meet, crucially, when Janey gives Lynne some privacy to change on the bus, Lynne flipping her uniform inside out to reveal casual wear. Lynne dons increasingly outrageous ‘80s outfits, her hair seemingly expanding with every scene, as both teenagers push against the boundaries set for them and towards freedom of self-expression.
Sarah Jessica Parker is no dancer and the camera reliably cuts to wide angles before her character performs any tricky dance or gymnastic moves, allowing for a professional double to be substituted in. And yet, while inelegant, this solution feels preferable to watching an untrained star stumble through dumbed-down choreography. It’s rare these days to have a genuine triple threat. Here, this also results in some wonderful silhouette cinematography.
If you squint, there are themes of class and gender: rich girl Natalie (Holly Gagnier) thinks she can buy her way to success, her father threatening to fire Jeff’s father from his factory if he stays in the competition; Jeff’s father wants him to go to trade school rather than dance; Janey’s father is military, a strict disciplinarian who wants his daughter home every night.
But these create, at most, hints of conflict; this is nothing more or less than an infectiously fun fantasy.
At once a fable and a psychological thriller, mother! fails at both. It follows two people, a couple, living in an isolated house in the countryside. Him (Javier Bardem) is a poet, struggling to write; Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is a housewife, slowly restoring their house after a fire. An unexpected and unwanted (by Mother) visitor (Ed Harris) begets another (Michelle Pfieffer), and so on, until the flow of people becomes a flood, an outright onslaught on the house and Mother's well-being.
mother! more than tips its hand in the opening scenes, literally showing its ending first. Rather than serving as a horrifying, gradually dawning reveal, which might have been effective, the narrative's circularity detaches the audience from the characters, making it clear from the very beginning that they are to be seen merely as allegorical symbols.
Aronofsky maintains that his film is about mother nature and environmentalism; as Richard Brody accurately points out, the film he's actually made is far more interesting than the one he thinks he's made. It seems more clearly a story about abuse, about misogyny, about unequal power dynamics between male, ego-driven artists and the women by their side, women who men take and take from and who, perversely, allow themselves to be taken from, offering themselves up sacrificially.
It's a setup that in some senses is worthy of a Fassbinder or von Trier, directors who interrogate their own misogyny, or at least pretend to. Fassbinder again and again returns to characters who are complicit or willing participants in their own oppression.
Yet at every turn Aronofsky imposes surreal or religious imagery on the proceedings. The characters have no characterisation - no past, no names even. There is no functional difference between the couple who supposedly live in this house (Bardem and Lawrence) and the guests who won't leave (Harris and Pfieffer). Both sets of characters are actually intruders. They're intruding on Aronofsky's grand ideas which, when they are faced with the ontology of the film image, when they have to be represented by human actors, become impure and crumble into dust.
Perhaps "Mother" could be Mother Nature in the script; on screen "Mother" is Jennifer Lawrence. With that unavoidably comes all of Lawrence's past as an actress, her current status as a freshly crowned star, and the scuttlebutt around her relationship with Aronofsky (which began during this film). But even had this cast been populated with unknowns, it's impossible to make a pure allegory in this medium in the way Aronofsky wants; inevitably, in the filming of it, it becomes specific.
The experience of mother! is unpleasant for several reasons, but mainly because it feels like watching someone sabotage his film and himself, both artistically and commercially, but in an oblivious and self-satisfied rather than deliberate, provocative and self-reflexive way.
(Kristen Wiig, playing "herald", a publisher turned executioner, is the only cast member able to walk this line successfully; she does so superbly, although she benefits from having a comparatively small role.)
And so the conversation around the film proves more interesting than the film itself. In the grand scheme of cinema, mother! probably doesn't deserve this level of attention.