Produced by Protozoa Pictures
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
The Unknown Girl
Produced by Les Films du Fleuve
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Distributed by Sundance Select
Produced by Acacia Filmed Entertainment
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan
Distributed by The Weinstein Company
I am about to discuss a truly wretched film: mother!, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Before I do I must warn you that I’ll be violating the reviewer’s rule against revealing a film’s central conceit and its ending. I’ve done so egregiously, but not wantonly. I have two justifications for doing so: First, the movie was spoiled from the moment Aronofsky conceived it, and second, it’s my duty to protect the public at large from films that might make them ill.
Aronofsky studied filmmaking at Harvard, where he was, I am reliably told, an exemplary student. However, he must have cut the class that informed students that it’s rather a bad idea to include scenes in which babies are roasted alive and then consumed in eucharist-sized wafers. It’s a simple caution to heed, I would have thought. Aronofsky, however, has ignored it either ignorantly or defiantly. By comparison, Jonathan Swift is a model of discretion when discussing the various methods of preparing infants for the table in his infamous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Swift contented himself with alluding in a general way to boiling, baking, and fricasseeing babies, foregoing close-up descriptions of these cooking processes. Aronofsky, on the other hand, insists on serving us the particulars.
I suppose his excuse is artistic license. He was determined to film a two-hour allegory of the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with Adam and Eve and their squabbling boys, and briskly moving on to Christian themes and ceremonies. Strangely enough, he’s left out quite a few luminaries. Saul, David, Solomon, and John the Baptist all fail to show up. And, despite scenes of a flood, neither does Noah. Well, Aronofsky gave the prophet a film of his own in 2014. Perhaps Russell Crowe didn’t want to reprise the role in a sopping cameo.
The film begins with “mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) being formed from clay on a bed, a veritable earth mother. She awakes, stretching her beautiful limbs luxuriatingly. She then reaches for “Him” (Javier Bardem, her husband/creator/world-famous poet), but he’s downstairs wrestling with his writer’s block. He’s had one enormous hit with his first poem—concerning the creation, one assumes, which turns out to be a huge many-roomed Victorian house sitting in a meadow surrounded by beautiful trees—but now he’s stumped. Not to worry over much: “man” (Ed Harris) shows up, followed by his wife, “woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), both expecting to stay indefinitely. Next their sons come along. The original family? Others follow. Although mother complains, Him is pleased. These guests, he explains, adore Him and thus give Him inspiration.
But then things get out of hand. As the guests multiply, they pursue Him about the house, tearing it to pieces in search of souvenirs as they go. They break the pipes, bringing on a flood. From there things go from bad to worse. We come to a sort of climax with mother giving birth. Her newborn son provokes the guests to an even greater frenzy. They all want to touch the boy—first reverentially, then violently. Soon the roasting and consuming begin, with men dressed in ornamental robes standing in attendance. For reasons known to Aronofsky alone, Santa Claus doesn’t show up. Too bad. At this point we could have used a bit of merriment.
This is as foolish and repellent a film as I have seen in many years. And it’s not a little blasphemous, especially with regard to Christianity. Aronofsky may have some handle on the Old Testament, but he clearly doesn’t understand the New Testament’s central dogma, the Incarnation, at all.
What’s the film’s point? I can’t say, and I doubt Aronofsky can either. (“Read the credits and look for the letter that isn’t capitalized,” he admonished fans, and “ask yourself what’s another name for this character?”) Is his film satire or mockery? Or does he think he’s honoring the human quest for meaning? He really should go to his room and consider cosmic matters more carefully rather than showily attempting to plumb their depths as he has here.
At the other end of the spectrum from Aronofsky, we have the Belgian filmmaking brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. They, too, are given to allegorical design in their films, but unlike the floridly self-aggrandizing Aronofsky, they never make a pretentious fuss about it. There’s none of Aronofsky’s look-at-me-being-brilliant in their closely observed moral narratives. I’ve seen three of their films, and what they have in common is a rigorous determination not to show off. I find their dedication to a quiet realism of manner undergirded with thematic symbolism very affecting. Like the Italian neorealists of the 1950’s, their commitment to a surface artlessness is belied by shrewdly deployed allegorical images.
In the otherwise austerely realistic The Unknown Girl, one such image leaps out at us. This happens when the protagonist, Jenny Davin, a young doctor beautifully played by Adèle Haenel, walks about her apartment holding a small bowl of soup in one hand and plain waffle in the other. She’s talking to an official on her phone about bringing justice to the unclaimed remains of a dead girl. The corpse is scheduled to be buried anonymously if no one steps forth to establish its identity. Jenny is trying to redeem the girl and with her all those who may have had some responsibility for her life, including Jenny herself. Hence the bowl and the waffle. They remind us of the consecration in the Mass in which Christ’s blood is separated from his body, a sacrifice made to rescue us from what might be otherwise our purposeless existence. Jenny has embraced this sacrificial mission.
The facts are these. Working late at the office one night, Jenny’s door buzzer sounds repeatedly. Her assistant, a young intern, gets up to answer it, but Jenny tells him not to. It won’t do to accede to their patients’ every importunate demand. To do their work, they must conserve their energy and maintain their alertness. A few moments earlier, she reminds the inexperienced intern, he had frozen at the sight of a young patient who had been suffering convulsions. Doctors, she adds, shouldn’t become overly solicitous or emotional about their patients. Empathy with them can easily get in the way of making sound diagnoses. Ironically, Jenny will abandon this reasoning when she discovers the person who had been at her door was an adolescent girl who would shortly die, either by misadventure or at the hands of a murderer. The rest of the film follows Jenny as she tries to discover who the girl was. That’s the plot. As it unfolds, we come to realize that Jenny possesses a genuine goodness that’s neither sentimental nor self-aggrandizing. She has what I’ve recognized in some doctors: a disinterested devotion to helping others. Up until the girl came to her door, Jenny had assumed that this required disciplining her emotions so she could keep cool under pressure and practice her art effectively. The unknown girl has provided her another perspective, however. Jenny now realizes that in some situations emotional intensity is necessary to get the job done.
Left to the police, the unknown girl would likely stay unknown. She was a girl from Africa supporting herself by means of prostitution. The police have little motive in finding out much more about her. To them, she was one of the innumerable throwaway kids who sadly clog their files. Her only connection to Jenny is that she had been plying her trade at the construction site across the way from Jenny’s office. Jenny, however, is profoundly moved by her fate and becomes obsessed with discovering her identity and finding her relations. Making inquiries to get this information puts her at considerable risk when she comes across some men who have used the girl’s services and encounters the pimp who was profiting from them.
Neither Jenny nor the Dardennes are all that interested in nailing down the guilty. They’re after bigger game. They want to impress upon the guilty and the innocent alike the ineluctable reality of a human soul. One fellow who admits to pursuing the girl for sexual favors cries that he now can’t get her image out of his head. He then asks, what’s the point of burying her with a name? She’s dead, isn’t she? Jenny, seizing on the implications of his own words, replies no; she lives in their minds, and that’s more than reason enough to find out and honor who she is.
Wind River, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, has been hailed as an extraordinary film by all the correct reviewers. One can understand why. Its plot features elements guaranteed to please the bien pensants: white men who resort to guns to solve their self-inflicted problems; Native Americans, some of them made criminals by their oppression, others quietly noble; and one very resourceful and valiant woman. It doesn’t hurt that these characters are brought together southeast of Jackson Hole, the resort of well-heeled Americans who delight in feeling good about themselves.
The drama begins when Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker, comes across the body of a dead Indian girl on the Wind River Reservation near Jackson Hole. The girl has died of exposure to the 20-degree-below-zero temperatures. She’d been running barefoot through the snow at night, and the subzero air caused blood vessels in her lungs to turn brittle and burst. This puzzles Lambert. As a local Native American, he reasons, she would certainly have been aware of the risks of her actions. The only rational explanation is that she was running from someone. Since the reservation’s police force has only 650 men assigned to cover an area the size of Rhode Island, and the crime proves to have involved rape, they decide to call in the FBI. The Bureau shows up in the unlikely person of Elizabeth Olsen. Not at all familiar with the location’s challenges, she enlists the aid of both the reservation’s chief of police (Graham Greene) and Cory.
Two things save the film from becoming a routine police procedural: the inhospitable environment and the unfamiliar customs of the people who live in it. As such, the film holds your interest even when it tests your belief. Among other lapses, Olsen is far too gentle looking to be convincing as a hard-nosed FBI agent, and a collection of white security agents far too reflexively and brutally villainous. However improbable, both elements seem designed to please a certain kind of audience.