Jennifer Lawrence can't save the sadistic spectacle that is Mother!

The first odd thing about writer director Darren Aronofsky's ode to womanhood is the title.

Mother! suggests a sympathetic, if essentialist view of women and their role: giving birth, nurturing life. And in this case, supporting a celebrity author husband with writer's block. But Ball and Chain! might have been more appropriate.

The film is a devastating portrayal of male selfishness in which an artist behaves appallingly to his wife who spends much of the movie trying to get his attention. He acts out of neglect more than anything else, but this triggers consequences that are catastrophic for her.

It's ironic that Aronofsky and lead actor Jennifer Lawrence became an item during shooting, because it's one of the most unromantic, repulsive films about a couple in recent memory.

A mysterious shot of Lawrence staring out at the audience while engulfed in flames, reminiscent of Joan of Arc, perhaps, opens the film. She wakes up in a bed and calls out to an empty house. "Baby!" She means her husband, because the couple have no children.

He's played by Javier Bardem, but before he appears, we follow her around the sprawling Victorian mansion they call home and get to see what she's been working on: an ambitious French provincial renovation like something from a Vogue Living pictorial.

The house stands in a field surrounded by a forest, idyllically separated from the outside world — until one evening, a knock at the door brings that world in.

With this small intrusion, you feel like you're in a sophisticated, late Roman Polanski drama about middle-aged, middle class couples who start to grate against each other.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are an intriguing counterpoint to Lawrence and Bardem. They bring an anarchic streak to the film — an energy that's abrasive, sensual and sinister.

They're also an existential threat to Lawrence's character, whose only power seems to be over the domestic space. Her obsession with household cleanliness and decoration has an echo of 1970s feminist theory about it, but if the film is sympathetic to the unpaid, undervalued work she puts in, it has a weird way of showing it.

Unable to re-establish order in her domain, and incapable of reining in her husband's hospitality, she becomes increasingly frustrated and tormented.

All the while, with the camera shadowing her, we observe her face at an unforgiving close range, alternating between anguish, bewilderment and — as the story morphs into a hallucinatory register — terror.

Bardem, meanwhile, reveals a shameless narcissism beneath his softly spoken, bohemian refinement and generosity.

Aronofsky has always been a director interested in pushing images to relay extreme emotion, perhaps nowhere more successfully than in his fever dream Black Swan. In Mother! he heads further into the terrain of waking nightmare than ever before, but reveals the limits of his creativity.

The film overheats. The portrayal of female suffering — so central to its apparent feminism — becomes a sadistic spectacle akin to watching a doomed lab rat take the wrong path in a maze.

Violence transforms the chamber piece into a swirling opera, with Lawrence a martyr in a sea of extras who heap scorn — and eventually physical violence — on her.

There are echoes of Mexican filmmaker Luis Bunuel's Viridiana in Mother! — though it goes on too long and the paucity of visual ideas becomes painfully apparent.

The camera swirls around the madness as Aronofsky attempts to critique celebrity culture, gender roles and the hollowness of the modern age. But the film has the incisiveness of an over-exuberant piece of amateur political theatre, and the lurid fresco of fans, managers and hangers on becomes a visual and aural cacophony.

Think La Dolce Vita crossed with The Shining but without the wit, a 21st century male feminist credo that uses the spectacle of a woman's suffering for the most meagre of insights.

Men will treat you badly — especially the sensitive, artistic ones — but the world will forgive them everything.

Damn them! Or perhaps it was ever thus. You decide, I guess. What a terrible waste of time.