My discombobulated attempt.
Darren Aronofsky (2017)
I seldom have occasion to regret walking into a movie theatre with no knowledge of the movie whatsoever. Whenever a director in whom I am interested, such as one Darren Aronofsky, releases a movie, I do the utmost to avoid any information about their new work. I already want to watch the film - any further information is spoiling the surprise. There are few exceptions, but let us list some, for fun. I would look up ratings for Brad Bird's next movie, to avoid a new Tomorrowland situation. If a movie I wanted to watch was horror or a light comedy, I would like to know in advance too, to schedule accordingly (horror is for late night, comedy for whenever I need a pickup). mother! is in a different category, one that David Lynch quite possibly reigns. In mother!'s case I might have appreciated some choice insights into the movie so that I would have some faint idea what the gracious gadzooks was going at any point.
It quickly becomes apparent that it is impossible to watch mother! and take its events literally. Between its more magical elements and the impossible turns the story takes, the mystifying behaviour of its characters, any attempt to do so would inevitably prove futile or worse, disastrous. I therefore tried to watch the movie with two to three different interpretations running simultaneously in my head, judging their merits and comparing them to the new events unfolding. Naturally it is almost impossible to stay focused on the movie for too long when you do that, not to mention how draining it is to run three conflicting narratives in your mind simultaneously. I abandoned my theories as they were disproven and picked some new ones along the way, taking care not to get too involved in the dreadful business of thinking.
That mother! is a horror movie was fairly evident from the start, I needed to figure out what kind of horror movie. My first theory, and in all honesty, I kept this one in the back of my mind for most of the movie, was that this was horror directed at introverts ; a gruesome story about ghastly rude people encroaching on Jennifer Lawrence's personal space, breaking things and being loud. The stuff of nightmares, really.
At the same time, all the symbolism and fantastical occurrences must have had some higher meaning. The first scene of the film suggests a cyclical nature to the story that compels one to look for allegory and metaphor. The title of the movie is an important clue to anyone wishing to unveil its hidden meanings, and I shall come back to that later, but in the first third of the film it threw me off course. If a literal child did not exist, could not the house itself, which Lawrence had built back from the ground up, not be a metaphorical one? That reading was later disproven into oblivion, and yet Lawrence's relationship to the house is never elucidated, and remains one of the fundamental questions the viewer must ask.
I will admit that it took me much too long to understand that the allegory was fundamentally about religion. I thought about the nascence of cultures and nations before I got to that idea. For some time, I entertained the notion that the sequence of events that follows Javier Bardem's notoriety was a criticism of postmodernist thought and the leftist postmodern political and cultural movements of the XXth century that descended into armed madness and repression, utopian ideal and all. I still think the idea has some merit for a select few scenes, but it does not fit the rest of the movie as well.
Before I get to the religious interpretation, the most solid alternative narrative I thought of in the movie theatre was one I came across again on the internet. It is almost equally plausible that Bardem should be playing an archetypal artist, a creative force than a religious figure - in many ways, the two are indistinguishable. mother! can be watched as a movie about the experience of being married to, let us say, an artistic genius, and the relationship he entertains with the public. It is not a pretty picture. Whether Bardem is a stand-in for Aronofsky or not is up to debate. If so, he shows remarkable empathy and understanding about the sheer hell the artist's wife must go through. Lawrence sees her entire existence crumble as her husband grows more famous. Her life and her house are torn apart - her marriage, asunder. Everything is sacrificed to the ego of the artist and his delusional project. Aronofsky is extremely critical of the figure yet at the same time there is merit to the accusations of misogyny that have been hurled against him. Lawrence plays a timid creature who rarely displays much agency. She is constantly neglected and dismissed, an object of inspiration ; emphasis on the object.
The reason I do not think that that critique of the movie, which I have egregiously simplified, is entirely fair, is that mother! is not a misogynistic movie. It is a misanthropic one.
Like a detail in an image you can never unsee, it is impossible not to think of the movie in religious terms once one realizes how perfectly it matches the Bible's top ten hits. Eve and the apple, Cain and Abel, the flood…it all becomes so obvious it is difficult to think of those scenes in any other terms. And golly, does Aronofsky have things to say about Christianity.
In his view, Yahweh, the Creator - or perhaps I should say the artist-Creator, but the implications are legion and I don't want to get lost in my argument - is not the benevolent god your average Christian would describe, but rather a tyrant who thrives on the adoration it leeches off its worshippers. Bardem preaches a gospel of love whose stench has Nietzsche laughing in his grave for therein lies the moral rot of his world. I hesitate to call the director an atheist because this could just as well be the vision of a believer who has come to hate his god. It is probably the former but it is amusing to think of the film as a disillusioned cry of rage.
Through its lens, the myth of Christianity is a mad bacchanal and its history one of violence and oppression. Humanity invades Creation like a pestilence, claiming it for itself with superior disdain. It is a wretched species that destroys the home it has been given with an amused smirk and twists the words of its God-Poet to fit its pathology. In the name of love wars are waged and the dissimilar persecuted and executed. Accidental gestures are deformed into sick rituals of mortification and sacrifice. Beelzebub may have the face of Dionysus but if the Greek god would not have been at home in the House it is only because even to him this would have been too much, too far.
To understand the movie I find it useful to think of the title. It places Lawrence's maternity at the heart of her identity in the allegory. By contrast, Bardem becomes the Father, what a first year psych student who call the father-architect archetype, the figure that lords over man as he emerges from childhood into a hostile world, a protector but also an autocrat. So Lawrence is Mother in that she is mother to Jesus, a stand-in for Mary, but also the opposite of Yahweh before his followers, which is the most interesting thing about the movie, because the opposite of god is Satan. Is Aronofsky proposing a new antithesis to Elohim or is he equating Satan to womanhood? Is he proposing a benevolent female archetype to trump the malevolent father figure of religion?
That question is only made more complicated when Bardem reveals Lawrence to have been one with his house, thereby equating her with Creation, or at least Creation before Man came into the picture. Humanity is on trial for matricide and Aronofsky finds it guilty. We have not only defiled the soils and befouled the air, we have corrupted the very innocence of nature, as God watched. And he saw that it was good.
His is not simply a crime of neglect. He is also the source of the pathological creeds at the centre of Christianity. His unwillingness to bear judgment, his readiness to always forgive encourage the violence and feed the rot. He fails to nurture and to guide ; Creation is left unprotected and, craving his attention, receiving no leadership, his flock is left to its ruinous devices. In the end Lawrence sees no option but to burn it all, the ultimate solution to humanity's existence. Game over. Play again?
mother! is an unpleasant, upsetting, befuddling, complicated, intricate movie that is hard on the senses. Much of it is noise and chaos. The sound design, coupled with Lawrence's close-ups that make-up for about 90% of it, creates a claustrophobic ambience conducive to being pretty goddamn freaked out for its entire running time. There are few experiences like this, that provide so much to talk about but that are so hard on you and your nerves that you balk at calling the whole thing a good movie. I did not have fun. I did not enjoy myself. Anyone who rewatches this movie to make more sense of it is a masochist of the highest order. And if the movie is generally violent and confusing, there is one particular scene that is going to set the standard for upsetting this year. I am not bothered by such things, but other people will be. I cannot imagine any mother watching this.
Yet, when all is said and done, this is a feat. A feat of technique and acting, of design and artwork, of writing, of vision, of inspiration and the gumption to pull it of. Whatever else it does, mother! does pull it off.