VENICE, Italy — Director Darren Aronofsky says his film “mother!” — a delirious nightmare starring Jennifer Lawrence — is a “roller-coaster ride.”
Fittingly, it thrilled some viewers at the Venice Film Festival, and left others a bit queasy.
A horror story that travels from menace to mind-bending mayhem, the movie was greeted with a mix of applause and boos from journalists Tuesday at the Italian festival, where it’s one of 21 movies competing for the Golden Lion prize.
Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple — identified only as Mother and Him — living in that horror-flick staple, an isolated old house. He’s a poet with writer’s block, while she devotes herself to restoring the house after a devastating fire.
Mysterious houseguests, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, trigger unsettling events that get progressively weirder. Imagine a cross between “Rosemary’s Baby” and the teeming hell-scapes of medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch.
Aronofsky, who won the Golden Lion in 2008 for “The Wrestler,” acknowledged the movie was “a very, very strong cocktail.”
“Of course there are going to be people who are not going to want that type of an experience. And that’s fine,” he told reporters.
“I’ve been making it clear that this is a roller-coaster ride: only come on it if you are really prepared to do the loop-the-loop a few times.”
Some critics were impressed by what a review in the Hollywood Reporter called the “madhouse bacchanal” of the film’s final stretch. Others wondered what it all meant. Variety found it impressive but empty, a “baroque nightmare that’s about nothing but itself.”
Aronofsky said the point of the film “is that it’s a mystery.”
“It’s constantly surprising the audience,” he said. “You don’t know where it’s going to go. And we didn’t want to make the audience ever feel safe, because Jennifer’s character in the movie never feels safe.”
It’s easy to see an environmental allegory in the film, about a house that is invaded, besieged, flooded and set on fire.
Aronofsky said the movie is his “howl to the moon,” provoked by anguish at the state of society and particularly the environment.
He said that while most of his films take years, he wrote the first draft of the script in just five days.
“It just sort of poured out of me,” he said.
“It came out of living on this planet and sort of seeing what’s happening around us and not being able to do anything,” the director added. “I just had a lot of rage and anger and I just wanted to sort of channel it.”
Viewers expecting naturalism should probably stay home. Aronofsky said the film is an allegory. Before becoming “mother!” the movie’s working title was “Day Six” — the day in the book of Genesis on which God created humanity and gave it dominion over the Earth.
That makes the characters as much archetypes as people — a challenge for the cast. Lawrence, who has portrayed a string of strong women, here plays a meek helpmeet who seems destined to suffer.
“It was a completely different character from anything I’ve ever done before, but it was also a different side of myself that I wasn’t in touch with and I didn’t really know, yet,” said Lawrence, who is in a real-life relationship with Aronofsky. “There is a part of me that Darren really helped me get in touch with.
“It was difficult. It was the most I’ve ever had to pull out of myself,” she said.
Like Aronofsky’s ballet movie “Black Swan,” the film depicts creative artists as in some ways monstrous, using and consuming those around them. And it touches on the way success and fame can be devouring, in bloody and disturbingly literal images.
Lawrence — who drew crowds of fans in Venice, as she does everywhere — said she tries in her life to “find the balance in myself” between being accessible and protecting her private space.
She said the film spoke “to the insatiable need that we all have now, especially with the internet. We just want more and more and more.”
Though the movie is dark and disturbing, Aronofsky says he is an optimist about the fate of the planet.
“America is schizophrenic,” he said. “We go from backing the Paris climate (accord) to eight months later pulling out.
“It’s tragic, but in many ways we have revealed who the enemy is and now we can attack it.”
Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless