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Saturday 18 August 2018

The weird world of Darren Aronofsky

The Brooklyn director's work is never dull, and his latest film has divided critics and attracted boos in Venice

Perfectionist: Darren Aronofsky
Perfectionist: Darren Aronofsky

Paul Whitington

Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to controversy, and his latest film may just be his most divisive yet. Mother! premièred last week at the Venice Film Festival, and the response was, to put it mildly, mixed. While some applauded, others stood and loudly booed, and one Spanish critic remonstrated angrily, shouting something about Luis Buñuel.

The director seemed unperturbed and even enthused by this reaction, and later said: "I want you to cheer and I want you to boo - what I don't want is for you to do nothing, because then I will feel let down".

He needn't worry on that score, because no one who goes to see mother! will emerge from it feeling indifferent. Aronofsky has described it as "the scariest rollercoaster in the amusement park", and he's not kidding: his film is an assault on the senses, a psychological endurance test that starts slowly before exploding into chaos.

So why is everyone getting so worked up about it? Well, without giving too much away, a scene involving a newborn baby and a frantic mob may have something to do with it, but on a wider level, critics are getting exercised by Aronofsky's overweening ambition, or rare vision, depending on your point of view.

His film starts quietly enough: Jennifer Lawrence plays a serene young woman who's in the process of painstakingly restoring a large house in the country. Her partner, an older man (who's played by Javier Bardem, and none of these characters have anything so banal as names), is a poet with writer's block, who sits with knitted brow in his pristine study while the woman paints and plasters her way from floor to floor.

They are happy, but the man seems distracted, haunted by a tragic fire that gutted the house, and you can just tell that allegories are coming. Guests arrive, first a gaunt, ill-looking man (Ed Harris) who's a big fan of the writer's work. Then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) turns up, who makes herself right at home and disrespects Lawrence's character at every opportunity.

The younger woman begins to feel panicked, and struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing circumstances of her household, which are about to spin wildly out of her grasp. Lawrence is a supremely talented screen actress, and is the fulcrum of this extraordinary film.

Lawrence and Aronofsky began a relationship during the shoot, which has raised much speculation about the biographical impetus of the film. Bardem plays a demanding middle-aged artist, Lawrence is his 20-something muse: is life imitating art? Hardly, as Aronofsky must surely have written his scenario before falling for his star, but on a broader level, there are parallels. Like Bardem's demanding poet, Aronofksy is known for being a hard taskmaster, and furious perfectionist: Mickey Rourke, who starred in his 2008 film The Wrestler, described him as "an old-style gangster Jew", and he apparently pushed Lawrence to the limit on the set of mother!

Her character endures all manner of pain, and during one particularly demanding scene, she dislocated a rib. "She ended up tearing her diaphragm," the director admitted in a recent interview. "She was hyperventilating - because of the emotion." But instead of calling a halt to shooting, Aronofsky ordered her to do the shoot again. "I said get the camera on her face right now, because that's the kind of emotion you never, ever see."

Aronofsky pushes his actors to the limit, no question, but he's pretty hard on himself as well. And he's one of the very few genuine auteurs in American cinema who manages to straddle the the arthouse and the mainstream. He's made some truly remarkable films, and whatever you think about his work and his methods, there's no one quite like him.

The child of two teachers, Darren Aronofsky was born in Brooklyn in 1969 and raised around Manhattan Beach. He has described himself as "a classically hypocritical high holiday Jew", and Brooklyn's emerging hip-hop culture was a more important influence than religion. "There wasn't really a big difference between the Jewish guys, the black guys, the Greek guys," he has said. "We were listening to the same music, dancing to the same steps, doing the same drugs."

Like many another child of the 1970s and 80s, Aronofsky was drawn to cinema by the films of Lucas and Spielberg. That led him to indie directors like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee, and after studying film at Harvard, he immediately began making short films with knotty, ambitious themes. His feature debut Pi (1998), made with money donated by family and friends, gave notice of what was to come: an austere and stylish black and white drama, it told the story of a mathematician obsessed with uncovering the secrets of the natural world through numbers. Made for just $60,000, it earned $3m at the box office and won him a prize at the Sundance Festival. Aronofsky was on the map.

His early career, however, was no walk in the park. His follow-up, Requiem for a Dream (2000), provided an unsettling insight into the effects of drug addiction on a group of disparate characters. It was challenging, original, innovative stuff, using split screen, time-lapse, extreme close-ups, and powerfully intense montages of multiple short shots. And Aronofsky stuck to his guns when asked to remove a graphic sex scene that would have given the film a friendlier rating, and a wider audience.

Nevertheless it was very well received. Aronofsky was soon being feted by the big studios, and in mid-2000, Warners invited him to work on the Batman franchise. He wrote a hard-hitting screenplay that would become the basis for Christopher Nolan's film Batman Begins, and it was Aronofsky who had the bright idea of casting Christian Bale as the caped crusader. But production delays robbed him of the chance to direct the film, and he departed to begin work on a more personal film that would become a notorious flop.

The Fountain (2006) was, to put it mildly, an ambitious project, a sprawling epic set in the present, future and past. Brad Pitt was originally due to star in it, but departed abruptly, leading to a long hiatus. Hugh Jackman eventually took over, playing three characters - a conquistador, a scientist and a futuristic time traveller - all searching for the meaning of life following a personal tragedy. As ever, there were visual splendours to enjoy, and Rachel Weisz, Aronofsky's then-partner, co-starred as three doomed love interests. But critics struggled to make sense of it, and cinemagoers fared even less well: made for $40m, it grossed less than half that. The golden boy was in a spot of bother.

But he bounced back spectacularly from a string of failed projects with a wrestling picture he'd been mulling over for a decade. Nicolas Cage was originally supposed to play the role of washed-up pugilist Randy 'the Ram' Robinson in The Wrestler before Aronofsky had the brilliant idea of casting Mickey Rourke.

In the 1980s Rourke had been hailed as the next Brando after a string of electrifyingly intense performances, but wild living and a messy foray into professional boxing had all but destroyed his face, and film career. He brought the wounded dignity of an ageing warrior to his Oscar-nominated portrayal of The Ram, a washed-up wrestler with serious health issues who cannot resist the lure of the spotlight.

It was a very fine film, but Aronofsky surpassed it with Black Swan (2010), a wonderfully overripe grand Guignol horror film set in the pressurised world of ballet. Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who descends into madness as she prepares for a starring role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Some critics moaned about the film's heightened theatricality, but that was deliberate, and part of the point. It was a brilliant piece of film-making, full of woozy peaks and troughs, and reminded one of Roman Polanski's horror films, and the sublime work of Powell and Pressburger.

The biblical story of Noah seemed a fittingly grand endeavour for such a bold and ambitious director. He'd fallen in love with the story of Noah as a kid, and spent $125m of his investors' money boldly retelling it for a modern audience. Russell Crowe was well cast as the bellowing Noah, who suffers magnificently as he saves his extended family and whatever lucky animals are passing from extinction. Noah (2014) was splendid stuff, but all over the place in terms of storytelling - excessive, clever, nonsensical, beautifully designed. "Noah may not make much sense," said David Denby of the New Yorker, "but only an artist could have made it."

So, is mother! a return to form? It depends who you ask. While some critics have showered it with praise in gushing five-star reviews, others have accused Aronofsky of ruining a potentially great film by indulging his wildest excesses.

Whatever about mother!, I think it's wonderful that a filmmaker as experimental and original as Aronofsky can attract the mainstream attention he does. His films are always interesting, never dull, and long may they continue to delight, infuriate, confound and surprise us.

Mother! is in cinemas now

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