Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! arrived in nachoplexes this weekend (15th September) carrying a huge weight of anticipation following a carefully calibrated and secretive marketing campaign and a premiere screening at the Venice Film Festival that provoked both applause and catcalls from the audience (at least at the early morning press screening). Now sooner did it arrive than it died at the box office, opening below projections with a reported $7.5m in the US and achieving a rare F from Cinemascore, the lowest possible rating from the site that polls opening weekend audiences in the US as they leave the theatre.
Equating the worth of a movie to its box office success is something only idiots do, but it is interesting to consider why Aronofsky’s film has received such a rough reception from audiences whilst simultaneously being generally well received by critics. That is what I’m going to try to do with this blog whilst also discussing the film, and my personal interpretation of its meaning in depth.
In order to achieve this, I will thoroughly spoil the film. So if you haven’t seen it and you intend to… do not read past the jump. In fact, even if you don’t intend to see it, don’t read past the jump. Because who knows, one night you might stumble over it in late night TV, or find it as an in-flight movie (a hilariously unlikely prospect, but you never know). Trust me, you should see this film as cold as possible for it to realize maximum effect.
mother! opens with a succession of surreal images. Female eyes stare out of an inferno. Male hands carefully place a crystal on a pedestal. Sunlight falls across the interior of a house that appears either charred or covered in mould. The house transforms in a time-lapse from a ruin into a home. A shape rises out of a heap of rot and becomes a female form asleep in pristine sheets. The woman rises, turns and utters the first word of the film, ‘baby’. It will also be the last.
The ‘woman’ (Jennifer Lawrence) is the wife of an older man (Javier Bardem). None of the characters in the film is named, the credits list these characters only as ‘Mother’ and ‘Him’. She is a tireless homemaker who has taken it open herself to restore the vast mansion in which they live while he wrestles with writer’s block. She states that she is trying to create a ‘paradise’ for them.
The sanctity of this domestic idyll is broken when ‘man’ arrives, in the form of a doctor played by Ed Harris. ‘Man’ has arrived at their home – which is in the middle of a wheat field, surrounded by a wood, with no visible road access – thinking it is a bed & breakfast. She wants him to leave, arguing (reasonably) that they don’t know him, but he wants him to stay, finding his company stimulates creative ideas. Soon man is joined by ‘woman’ (a brilliant Michelle Pfieffer) who escalates tensions between the couple with ostentatious public displays of affection, drinks excessively, and asks inappropriately forward questions about the younger woman’s sex life.
The tone of the first movement of Aronofsky’s film is Pinteresque, a dark comedy of domestic disturbance as an uncouth family pushes their way into the house, upsetting plans, spreading out, and generally treating the place like a hotel. As Lawrence’s character’s frustration grows, her husband only indulges the interlopers more. When he becomes aware that the doctor did not happen by the house by chance, but is in fact an avid fan of is poetry, this just increases his fascination. Every time his wife raises an objection it is either diverted (when she stumbles on a photograph of her husband in the man’s luggage and reveals this to him, his response to ask why she was in the doctor’s room), brushed aside, or ignored. When the guests two sons arrive unannounced and uninvited, it sparks a family argument that turns violent and ends in tragedy.
Reading reviews of mother! after the fact has been extremely interesting. While some critics (Mark Kermode, Robbie Collin) have snapped into Aronofsky’s surrealistic allegorical groove. Other’s seem to have missed it entirely. With the benefit of the doubt, this could be chalked up to some being so overly sensitive about anything that could be construed as a ‘spoiler’ that they have reviewed the film as if it is the home invasion horror picture the film’s trailer implied it would be. However, in addition of numerous reviews either not mentioning the film’s biblical allusions, there have been numerous articles attempting to explain them to the uncomprehending (I guess that includes this one), and a piece in The Hollywood Reporter piece rounding up complaints that the film is incomprehensible.
All of which is rather bizarre, as the film’s plot directly mirrors key events from the old and new testament. Let’s run through them as a bullet pointed list (this is the movies entire plot BTW, so I reiterate the SPOILER KLAXON!!) …
- Opening scene ‘he’ creates the world (including her)
- She states she is trying to build a paradise
- The crystal is clearly the apple of knowledge
- His writer’s room is ‘eden’
- Man and Woman (Adam and Eve) arrive and are fascinated by the crystal/apple
- Man and Woman sneak into his writing room and smash the crystal/apple
- He is enraged and sends man and woman out of the room and boards up the door. Thus banishing man and woman from Eden
- Man and Woman’s sons (Cain and Abel) turn up, and have a fight over the family will that ends with one killing the other
- In pulling the murderous brother off of his victim, he scars his fore head permanently marking ‘Cain’
- The blood of the murdered brother (sin) stains the floor, drips into the basement and exposes a portal to hell
- She finally persuades him to kick everyone out… during a rain storm!!! Remember Aronofsky’s previous film was Noah.
- He and she have a baby which inspires him to finish a new poem (testament?)
- As great reviews flood in, he invites everyone back into the house
- Once inside the people go nuts, fight over who has rights to his poem/testament, and wreck everything
- Against her wishes he gives his only son over to the crowd
- In their rush to lay hands on the baby, the people kill it then… EAT HIS FLESH
- He tells her they have to find a way to ‘forgive them’
- Then she tells him to fuck off and initiates the apocalypse by running down to hell and igniting a vat of oil in the basement immolating everyone and everything
- He pulls the heart from her burned body which becomes a crystal and the cycle begins again.
To me this doesn’t seem to approach Twin Peaks: The Return for levels of obscured meaning. In fact, I think much of the film’s verve lies in the bluntness of its symbolism. What’s noteworthy is the myriad of ways this symbolism can be pieced together into meaning. It is a truly depressing indictment of a paucity of imagination that there are complaints that Aronofsky is asking too much of an audience by presenting this opportunity. It is like complaining that a LEGO set is an overly deconstructed version of a toy and asking for a Ken and Barbie kitchen set instead.
Aronofsy himself has explained that he wrote the film as a statement of rage against the despoiling of the environment and the wanton exhausting of the planet’s limited natural resources. Jennifer Lawrence’s character is figuratively Mother Earth who gives and gives and gives, until she can give no more. This is certainly all there in the film.
My own reading of the film is a little bit different. In the movie’s horrifying, hysterical, and exhausting final movement, multiple horrors and indignities are heaped upon Lawrence’s character until she finally snaps and fights back. While these horrors are at the hands of humanity, are they the true villains in this narrative?
Ask yourself… who ignores her warnings? Who allows the people to repeatedly invade their space? Who is so vain he is obsessed with basking in the radiance of their love? Who offers up her child to the mob? Who has initiated this cycle of violence before, and will initiate it again?
It is him, the Creator, God. I read mother! as an aggressive critique of Judeo/Christian ideology as a patriarchal system that sidelines the feminine ‘earth’ and provides justification to humanity to do as they will with her. That reduces the mother to the status of an ignorant vessel for the love of a masculine creator who rides in and takes the credit for the work she has done. At the end of the film, when he asks her to forgive them, her reply is ‘you’re insane’. The ultimate shot of Bardem’s grinning face as he places her crystal ‘heart’ on a pedestal (an icon of femininity as a justification for the perpetuation of abuse) is a picture of entitled madness.
Or… Well you may have your own interpretation.
Mother! is a true original. Nevertheless, like all originals it stands on the shoulders of previous originals. Aronofsky has name checked Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, I would point to films as diverse as Pasolini’s Salo, Greenaway’s The Cook The Thief his Wife and Her Lover, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and (particularly) Melancholia as films in a similar class of singularity. Numerous reviews have mentioned Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, but that is the film the misdirecting trailer alluded to, Aronofsky’s actual movie has more in common with Repulsion.
There are some interesting genre touchstones too. The sheer intensity and discomfort of the domestic disturbance is reminiscent of Ruggero Deodato’s House on the Edge of the Park, a film that also functions as an allegory. The dank basement with its toad releasing portal reminded me of Lucio Fulci’s surrealist video nasty The Beyond and even Micheal Winner’s absolutely atrocious The Sentinel, both of which feature houses sitting atop gateways to hell.
Performances are phenomenal throughout, but it is Jennifer Lawrence who rules the movie. She features in nearly every scene and 60% of the film appears to have been the camera looking directly at her face, or sitting on her shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. Cinematography by Aronofsky’s regular collaborator Matthew Libatique is crucial to the oppressive and suffocatingly claustrophobic atmosphere.
One collaborator who is absent is composer Clint Mansell. Aronofsky elected to work with Jóhann Jóhannsson on this film, but in post production both composer and director decided to eliminate the score in place of an elaborate and heightened use of sound design.
Finally, perhaps the major reason for the film’s difficult reception is that ultimately the one moral lesson it inarguable provides is that (to borrow a Slipknot song title) … People = Shit.