When a film carries a reputation before it even comes out and then divides opinion down the middle, it’s hard to steer clear of snippets of information before you see it. Such was the case with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which has gained headlines for putting star Jennifer Lawrence through the wringer and for being batshit crazy. I’m going to attempt to get to the bottom of what this unique, difficult, and visceral film is all about. I probably won’t be right, but one of the remarkable things about mother!, is that interpretation is not just invited, but essential to enjoying it.
My gut reaction on leaving the cinema was that it was like watching an escalating panic attack. Cinematically, Aronofsky has outdone the gut punches he threw with Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, adding an acute sensation of drowning in anxiety. The entire film is set within an impressively complex octagonal house; that we never leave is important to my interpretation, but I’ll get to that later. Boasting impeccable production design, mother! is meticulously constructed with the express intention of keeping you on edge, and then sharpening the edge. Creaking floors, unpredictable water pipes, and the unpleasant sound of glass rubbing on glass are almost constant, and this is aside from J-Law’s nameless character often seeing a decaying heart through the walls.
The ‘plot’ (loose as it is) sees Lawrence trying to restore husband Javier Bardem’s fire-damaged house. Uninvited visitors arrive, preventing her work, while he (a respected poet) does none anyway. An unnamed Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive and befriend Bardem; drinking and smoking, they are passive-aggressive towards Lawrence and ignore her every request. They go to Bardem’s forbidden writing room, which contains a strange, brittle crystal, implied to be his inspiration. They break it, and then when told to leave go to their room and have sex instead. Their children and extended family arrive and won’t leave when Lawrence asks them to (often asking if this was his decision, as though hers doesn’t count). This escalates to a point where the endless guests, mostly ignoring her or carrying out unrequested decorating on her behalf, sit on an unfinished sink and cause a flood. Cue Lawrence going apeshit and making them leave (although they still look at her like she’s overreacting). Lawrence and Bardem have sex and she wakes up instinctively knowing that she’s pregnant; this inspires Bardem to write like a man possessed.
Jump forward 9 months and Lawrence is ready to drop, while Bardem’s poem is finished. Believing it to be his best work, within minutes of completion it starts to attract increasingly sycophantic and fanatical readers to the house. He basks in the adulation, but Lawrence can’t keep them out of the house (again), and they start to become abusive. Now… if at this point you’re taking any of the film literally, you will be thinking that mother! is baffling, annoying, and probably a little silly. The fans, including Kristen Wiig’s publicist, start to debate the meaning of the poem, form factions over its meaning, then execute opposing factions, then a full-on war breaks out. All the while, Lawrence is trying to find somewhere quiet so she can give birth.
Baffled by her husband’s behaviour, she refuses to hand the child over to him, fearing what he’ll do. She falls asleep and he takes it, handing it over to the waiting mob… who proceed to kill, eviscerate and eat the baby. Her protests result in her being called a whore and beaten by the fanatical crowd. Angry, she retreats to the basement and uses Ed Harris’ lost cigarette lighter to ignite heating oil and destroy the house. An unharmed Bardem pulls out her heart, from which he then finds another crystal. The film ends with the same shot that began it: ‘mother’ waking in her bed, only this time played by a different actress.
I don’t normally describe the whole plot in these things, but in this case the details are important. My take is that mother! roughly, loosely tells the story of the bible from Genesis to Revelations, but from the point of view of Mother Nature (Lawrence). The house represents Earth (Lawrence states that she wants to make it a paradise), hence Lawrence can’t leave it. Bardem’s study, the Garden of Eden.
Bardem plays God; proud, resting on his laurels, and bathing in the adulation of his followers. His poem is the bible (or another holy text) – a throwaway line states that everybody takes its meaning differently. Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam & Eve; entering the forbidden room, breaking something they shouldn’t have touched then popping off for a shag. Their warring children, obsessed with inheritance and legacy, are Cain and Abel. Those who follow are the human race; going with this reading of the film, Aronofsky clearly has little affection for his species as they ignore, destroy and abuse nature content as long as they think their God is happy and welcoming. This phase of the film ends with a flood (his previous film, Noah, didn’t do it this well) which empties the house.
The second phase of the film, once ‘mother’ is pregnant, tells the tale of organised religion. Factions form based on differing interpretations, they fight, and the house becomes dangerously overpopulated, all he while ‘mother’ is shunned and abused, the film becomes overwhelming to watch. Bardem often refers to her as his Goddess; one might see this as simply affectionate but nothing else about his behaviour supports this. The most horrific part of the film centres around the baby; the crowd stops their violence in anticipation of the 2nd coming, and then promptly resumes, and the unrepentant nastiness that follows can be read as the origins of the Catholic church.
Rather than just telling the bible story as a lengthy metaphor, Aronofsky seems intent on making a point. That point is up for debate but here are a few suggestions:
That Lawrence’s Mother Nature character is shunned, ignored, abused, and her creation trampled by countless brainwashed humans, plays into Aronofsky’s well publicised environmental concerns. His message may be that if we continue down this road – too much respect for a lazy, egotistical God and not enough for the goddess who does all the actual work in sustaining our world – she will turn on us and we will then be promptly fucked, and God will not care. mother! can also be read as a warning about the dangers of an increasingly misogynistic world. Everybody, even female characters, take Bardem seriously, love and respect him, but patronise and ignore the actual creative force. Even when she creates life, all anybody cares about is that it came from him. Probably the most personal reading is that Aronofsky is commenting on the creative process itself: nobody cares about the muse, only the poet, whose success causes the neglect and destruction of the muse. The poet then moves on to another muse.
mother!, while horrific, is not a horror film. It owes a huge debt to Polanski: the claustrophobia and ‘living’ rooms of Repulsion, and the bleak commentary on motherhood that pervades Rosemary’s Baby. It trusts the audience to go along with the metaphor – taking it literally will mean not taking it seriously. On an emotional level, it is a cinematic masterpiece; if you let mother! in, it will make you feel something and leave you different to how it found you. And that is the essence of all great art, and like all great art, nobody says it has to be pretty.