VENICE — Every good film festival needs a firestarter: a big, bold auteur film intended to split and disquiet audiences, whereupon the critical reaction winds up consuming as many analytical column inches as the movie itself. Yesterday, after a quiet but consistently respectable start — with the likes of “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri” premiering to warm consensus — Venice finally got its incendiary opinion-divider a week into the festival, as Darren Aronofsky’s aggressive, terrifying, deeply personal fever-dream “Mother!” was sprung on audiences.
For the first time at Venice this year, fierce boos reverberated around the Sala Darsena as the closing credits rolled — any European festival crowd’s favored way to express artistic disapproval, to the consternation of more temperate Americans and Brits. But the noise didn’t speak for the entire room: seconds later, Twitter made it clear that Aronofsky’s thorny provocation had as many exhilarated admirers as it did incensed detractors. It’s rare for the most subversive, polarizing film in a major festival competition to also be its glitziest Hollywood offering; it’s equally rare for a Hollywood studio, in this case Paramount, to produce a film this go-for-broke outrageous to begin with.
I’m firmly in the admiring camp, but I was braced for the booing, a standard reaction to chilly films that subvert comfortable expectations of narrative and form, particularly if there’s a whole lot of blood involved. Jonathan Glazer’s exquisite alien object “Under the Skin” was vigorously booed in Venice in 2013. Four years later, it’s in the contemporary critical canon. In Cannes in 2011, meanwhile, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” — perhaps you’ve heard of it — weathered boos from a loud, bewildered portion of the crowd. It went on to be nominated for a handful of Oscars, including best picture. “Under the Skin” never even got on the Academy’s radar. Not all avant garde cinema finds quite the same audience.
Aronofsky has felt the wrath and the adoration of Venice before. In 2006, his fearless, dizzy sci-fi romance “The Fountain” was jeered by the critical crowd, en route to being rejected by the public and awards voters alike. Two years later, “The Wrestler” was a wildly popular winner of the Golden Lion, launching Mickey Rourke on an Oscar trail that oh-so-nearly ended in gold. Two years after that, “Black Swan” opened the festival to ecstatic notices. Despite being a cool, brittle mind warp with horror overtones, it became an indie smash and overcame genre bias to land in the best picture race.
An apparent haunted-house ride that gradually spins out into far less classifiable dreamscape territory, thematically underpinned by a scathingly self-reflexive critique of the male creative ego, “Mother!” is at least as eccentric as “The Fountain” and far more subversive an art-horror statement than “Black Swan” — despite the major studio imprimatur. It could theoretically follow either film’s path: become a challenging outlier, championed by a devoted few, or an improbably embraced exception that proves the rule of the public’s and the Academy’s usual inclinations. Or it could find a middle path, becoming a conversation piece that scores commercially, bolstered by the star power of Jennifer Lawrence, but never connects with the awards crowd. (Conversely, awards attention for something this thorny and rebellious is difficult to come by if it gets labelled a box-office letdown.)
Until those receipts roll in next weekend, then, it’s all guesswork. My gut says this is not an Oscar vehicle, however upscale the components. But such definitions are getting hazier by the year, as the makeup of the Academy’s voting membership keeps expanding, tilting younger, more international and therefore less predictable with each new intake. My heart would like to see “Mother!” in play in the top races, with Aronofsky singled out for his virtuoso direction, which maintains rigorous formal and tonal discipline as the shape and scale of the movie contorts beyond recognition.
His brilliant below-the-line collaborators deserve similar credit: Matthew Libatique’s sinuous, duskily lit cinematography intuitively serves Aronofsky’s vision; the sound design is inventive and immaculate; Philip Messina’s production design conjures perfectly contained, shivery American Gothic before turning its story world entirely inside out. (If the Art Directors Guild doesn’t find room for it in its contemporary field, attention isn’t being paid.)
As for the performances, the resurgent Michelle Pfeiffer may represent the film’s best shot at a nod in the top categories. Her wicked, uncanny turn as a houseguest from hell is the most vivid screen work she’s done since 2002’s “White Oleander,” and after several years out of the spotlight, voters might be ready to welcome back the three-time nominee, even if they don’t take to the film overall. (If a determined Diane Ladd could land a supporting nomination for an auteur film as out-there as “Wild at Heart” 27 years ago, after all, it’s possible.)
As for Lawrence, while there are those who feel the 27-year-old has been over-rewarded by the Academy at this still-early stage in her career, I’d have no objection to a fifth nomination for her finely calibrated work here. It exposes a more fragile facet of her screen persona than any we’ve since since her breakout work in “The Burning Plain” — which, coincidentally enough, won her an award in Venice nine long years ago. By necessity, it’s a role that hems in her natural exuberance, which, coupled with the prickly nature of the film itself, doesn’t benefit her chances.
But neither Lawrence, nor Aronofsky, nor anyone involved with this wild, cathartic film is in it for trophies. “Mother!” is a film its artists seemingly made to let something dark out from inside. That release is already their reward.