Mother, May I? opens, as indeed it closes, with a view of the countryside seen through a window – an idyllic image of nature that conceals a human drama just beyond its frame. For the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the curling smoke of a lit cigarette balanced on an ashtray, and then an overturned chair and, lying beside it on the floor, the body of a middle-aged woman. Tracy (Robin Winn Moore) is very much dead – and a rapid montage that shows her corpse being unceremoniously bagged, stripped of its jewellery, removed on a stretcher, and burnt until it is reduced to a pile of ash in a box makes it unsentimentally clear just what is left behind after death in physical terms.
Writer/director Laurence Vannicelli’s feature, however, is far more concerned with the psychological traces of death. The last time Emmett (Kyle Gallner) saw his mother Tracy and this beautiful rural home in upstate New York, he was a young child – so he is surprised, as an adult, to have been handed the carbonised remains, and to have been bequeathed the property, of a woman from whom he has been entirely estranged for most of his life. Even as an absence, though, Tracy has certainly left her mark on Emmett – for he is traumatised with abandonment and trust issues, and reluctant to talk about the early years that he barely remembers.
His fiancée Anya (Holland Roden) knows all this, and so when she accompanies him to the primal scene of his mother’s house, she sees this as an opportunity for the man that she loves at last to address his unresolved emotions, even as she works through some of her own conflicted feelings. He would like to start a family with her, whereas she is not yet sure what she thinks about the idea of becoming a mother. He would like to flip the property as fast as possible and to get back to their lives in New York City, while she is at least entertaining the possibility of moving in and making this place their own home. She knows the property causes him pain, but can also see it is where he belongs.
Tracy may be dead, but the house is still haunted with her trace memories – a blood stain remains where she fell, there are photos of her all over the walls, her clothes and journals in her bedroom, and personal documents buried away in the basement. In this fraught environment, Anya decides to engage in a practice that she has learnt from her own ‘fancy psychoanalyst’ mother. Anya encourages Emmett to play ‘chair reversal’, a game in which first she asks him a personal question, and then they switch seats and parts so that he, pretending to be her, poses the same question, and she, pretending to be him, gives a more forthcoming, if not necessarily more accurate, answer than he could ever furnish himself.
Anya is an unpublished poet with no formal training in psychiatry, so that this whole exercise may be mere ‘quack therapy’, as Emmett later suggests to Bill (Chris Mulkey) who lives on the neighbouring farm (significantly named Hill House) – but nonetheless ‘chair reversal’ will prove a key metaphor that modulates all the rôle-play, projection and transference to come. For after the couple do magic mushrooms together – another collective ritual supposed to facilitate a (literally psychedelic) baring of souls – something mysterious happens to Anya. Not only does she start wearing the clothes and makeup of the house’s previous occupant, but she also adopts Tracy’s habits and mannerisms, many of which are entirely uncharacteristic of Anya, or even antithetical to her abilities. In effect, Anya becomes Emmett’s late mother, and whether this is an extension of ‘chair reversal’ as Emmett first believes, or a psilocybin-induced hallucination that is divided between them, or a supernatural phenomenon of metempsychotic possession as is increasingly implied, what unfolds will force both Emmett and Anya to work through the deep-seated problems of their respective family legacies, so that they can find an accommodation that gives both of them what they want out of their relationship.
Named for another game, Mother, May I? is both ghost story and Freudian psychodrama, ultimately evoking Jonathan Glazer‘s Birth (2004) in its Oedipal reincarnations, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017) and Nicholas Pesce’s Piercing (2018) in its use of a sadomasochistic matrix to frame its couple’s fragile dynamic. The ending is fine-tuned to be both Hollywood happy, and deeply disturbing – while offering a confrontingly honest portrait of the genetic and psychic burdens that have to be shared in any successful relationship. Meanwhile, amid the film’s rotating redistribution of family rôles, both Gallner and Roden show seamless versatility in playing their multiple parts. There will always be three in this relationship, but Vannicelli shows a sensitive emotional intelligence in finding a cure, however poisonous and perverse, for what afflicts this polarised pair – and most importantly, they can at last openly acknowledge and own their mutual needs.
strap: Laurence Vannicelli’s perverse psychodrama offers couple’s therapy to a man haunted, and a woman possessed, by a late mother
© Anton Bitel