Bright Lights Film Journal

Cosmic Melodrama: Darren Aronofsky’s <em>mother!</em>

Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. Photo (c) Paramount Pictures

Whatever else it is, mother! is ultimately a woman’s anxious nightmare about what it feels like to put your heart and soul into creating something only for people to take part of it for themselves, to be a woman who loves a man she admires and gives him everything she has even though he cannot love her back and gives her nothing in return.

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Darren Aronofsky is a frustrating oddity. His films are rife with bizarre, fantastical imagery, and he treats his dark and grandiose subject matter with deadly seriousness, which means that, whenever something doesn’t quite work, his films immediately descend into camp. He often tries to wrangle together so many lofty themes and referents at once that they get in each other’s way; they seldom have enough screen time to fully gestate because he also tries to maintain the pacing of a conventional narrative, yet, despite his obvious penchant for the avant-garde, he refuses to abandon dramatic structure. The way he infuses low-art genre fare with high-art aesthetics might seem transgressive and mischievous if his sense of humor weren’t so dry and his intentions weren’t so earnest, and his preoccupation with mysticism, tragedy, psychology, and ethics can come across as pretentious. However, pretension implies falseness, and there is no falseness in Aronofsky’s films, only failure of execution, and even his failures are too thoughtful and ambitious to dismiss him as an arthouse poseur. Though his films are violent and gruesome, dealing explicitly with things like psychosis, child murder, and self-mutilation, he always attends to their moral implications without moralizing, and he never exploits his subjects for cheap thrills. He is also one of the boldest stylists working in American cinema, especially in his use of texture, color, and shape to convey organic qualities like growth and decay, which rivals Tarkovsky’s, Cronenberg’s, or the Quay brothers’.

With his newest film, mother! (deliberately spelled with a lower-case M), Aronofsky’s technique and instincts as a writer-director have caught up to his ambition. To say that it is Aronofsky’s best and most original film to date is merely accurate. The same was true of Noah when it was released in 2014, and The Fountain in 2006. Mother! is something else: a near perfect synthesis of psychosexual horror and cosmic irony, a feminist Third Testament, a masterpiece that seems to broach the limits of his art.

Despite his bohemian trappings, Aronofsky is essentially a melodramatist, taking hyperbolic domestic tragedies about self-destructive individuals and close-knit family units and amplifying them through a lens of the epic and the fabulous. In that sense, his work is more operatic than theatrical, and mother!, which plays out in an enclosed space that might otherwise seem suitable for something like A Doll’s House, is his grandest expression of this mode, grander even than his self-consciously bombastic Hollywood blockbuster Noah. A poet suffering from writer’s block (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live by themselves in a remote house in the woods – neither character is named in the film, but they are called Him and mother in the credits (Him with a capital H, mother with a lower-case M). The house – which is in a forest clearing with no path, road, or driveway leading to it – was destroyed in a fire sometime before mother came into Him’s life, and mother spends her days repairing and remodeling it, occasionally suffering from strange visions and dizzy spells. Their remote existence is violated when fans of Him’s poetry begin showing up at their house, which Him encourages to mother’s increasing anger (part of the pleasure of mother! is watching how Aronofsky teases mythic extravagances out of this premise, but the film is impossible to discuss without “spoiling” it, so, if such things bother you, consider yourself warned).

The house. Photo (c) Paramount Pictures

The film’s first half is full of melodramatic and Gothic staples like secret rooms, terminal illness, and fratricide, but, once mother becomes pregnant and Him is inspired to write again, it escalates into surreal phantasmagoria: hundreds of people descend upon the house and form a makeshift religion around Him’s poetry, building shrines and monuments and prisons of barbed wire, murdering and enslaving one another as pogroms, holy wars, and mass executions play out entirely within the house. In the midst of this absurd chaos – which is equal parts horrific, tragic, and comic – mother gives birth, only to have her baby taken away, killed, and eaten by Him’s followers. Mother then destroys the house with apocalyptic fire, killing everyone but herself and Him, but, while she is horribly burned, Him is untouched. When the dying mother asks Him who he is, he completes the film’s transition into the mythic by saying “I am I,” an echo of Exodus 3:14. He then reaches inside her body to remove her love for him – which takes the shape of a fiery jewel – and uses it to rejuvenate the house after her death. From the ashes rises a new mother, “maiden,” played by a new actress (Laurence Leboeuf), implying an infinite cosmological cycle.

Poster (detail)

The boldness of Aronofsky’s religious metaphors makes it easy to misread the film as a theological allegory with Him as God, but metaphor is not allegory, and no allegorical reading of the film can be sustained. For instance, the first houseguest to arrive is simply called “man” (Ed Harris), and, after we see him with a strange wound near his ribcage, his wife, “woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), arrives, followed by their two sons (Brian and Domnhall Gleeson), one of whom kills the other by smashing his head in with a doorknob. If you try to use this obvious parallel to the Book of Genesis as an entry point to “solve” the movie the way you might decode the self-important puzzle-box movies of Christopher Nolan, the entire film will collapse, and reviewers who have tried have used this as a way to dismiss the film as intellectually hollow. However, Aronofsky takes his cues from ironically elliptical sources like Kubrick,1 Dostoevsky, and kabbalah, where the greatest mysteries tend to hide behind what seems most obvious. This is why mother! makes me think of Last Year at Marienbad and The Night of the Hunter, two other films that construct expressionistic universes in which binary oppositions are layered on top of one another until clichés transform into poems.

Michelle Pfeiffer (screenshot from trailer}

If, as some would have it, Him is God, man is Adam, woman is Eve, and the two sons are Cain and Abel, who, then, is mother? Certainly not the serpent: when “Eve” is tempted to go into Him’s office against his wishes, mother actively tries to stop her, and, in any case, though Him does kick the man and woman out of his office, it is mother who wants to expel them from their little paradise entirely. Likewise, the Christian parallels seem simple enough – Him is God-the-Father, mother is the Virgin Mary, the baby is Jesus, and the people who kill and eat him are a grotesquerie of Christian religion – but Him is the one who exudes messianic qualities and espouses Christlike beliefs of forgiveness and communal hospitality, while mother is the one who, throughout the film, exhibits Yahweh’s most characteristic trait: jealousy. Mother is, in some sense, the Virgin Mary, but she is also Mary Magdalene, Eve, Sarah, Lilith, the Whore of Babylon, Jesus, the Jewish people, Juliet, and Tiamat. As Umberto Eco said of Casablanca, “When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths.”2

It is, indeed, essential to understanding the film to accept that Him is a metaphor for God, but only in the sense that “God” is itself a metaphor, a mystical (as opposed to theological) approach typical of Aronofsky’s work. Him is not Everyman, but he is Man, men, and, simply, a man. He is creative, but self-consciously so: while mother creates of her own intrinsic nature, rebuilding the house and bearing a child, Him needs her to inspire him, and, even then, he is only able to create poetry about her and her power, a metaphor producing metaphors. He needs not just her approval, but the approval of others, of strangers, of worshipers to make his art meaningful to himself.

Javier Bardem (screenshot from trailer)

That is not to say he is simply God as a manifestation of men’s anxiety about women’s creative powers (though that is the film’s strongest reading of Yahweh as a literary character). We are given every reason to believe that his poetry is, indeed, beautiful, and mother herself considers him a genius. We can see why she loves him, and – even as she lies dying in his arms, saying “You never loved me, you only loved that I loved you” – why she loves him to the very end. He has a sublime charisma that conceals the fact that he is a dishonest emotional parasite. He seems giving without ever actually giving up anything that he truly values, and, though he never shows anger or displeasure of any kind toward mother, he seldom displays anything but a distant, paternalistic kindness. It is just enough to keep stringing her along so he can get what he needs from her; yet he is not an abuser, as that would suggest that he chooses to behave worse than he might otherwise. What is truly disturbing and tragic about Him, what makes him such an uncanny representation of masculinity, is that he does not seem to want to be this way, yet he is powerless to change. It is the best that he can be, and, as this endless cycle of women destroy themselves against him, he never improves.

Though Him dominates the film as a presence, it is mother who is at the center of its universe. From the outset, there is the sense that everything other than her is somehow unreal. Aside from two brief scenes that bookend the story (the end of the previous cycle when mother’s predecessor died, and the beginning of the next one when her successor rises from the ashes), every shot in the film either shows her or her point of view. Even when she reads Him’s poem, we do not experience the poem itself, only mother’s (silent and visual) interpretation of it. When the film is scary, it is only when mother is frightened; when it is lovely, it is when she is content. Him occasionally refers to mother as his “goddess,” and there is a distinctly diminutive quality to it, as a goddess – his goddess, one of many – is not God, yet she contains the entire world, which is destroyed by her rage and recreated by her love. She is Woman-as-Goddess as much as he is Man-as-God, but that is only another metaphor. All of mother!’s cosmic and mythic dimensions, all of its horror and gore and strange sensuality, stem from mother’s depth of intellect and feeling. If the film’s dreamlike associations between sex, love, gods, and death are complex and stimulating, it is only because mother is, and if they resist simple analysis and seem to slip out of your hands just when you think you’ve figured them out, it is because she is too multidimensional to draw a line around. Him is God, yes, but only because, in some way, mother perceives him that way.

Jennifer Lawrence. Photo (c) Paramount Pictures

Mother! provokes countless questions about the unending cosmic struggle between Him and mother (such as whether or not each mother is the reincarnation of their predecessor or someone new), but to accept an answer to any of them as definitive rather than suggestive would be to accept narrative logic and teleology as more important than subjective experience – in other words, to privilege Him’s story over mother’s. Likewise, to focus on these cosmic metaphors as something substantive unto themselves ignores the core of the film, which is the relationship between a man and a woman as seen through the woman’s eyes. Whatever else it is, mother! is ultimately a woman’s anxious nightmare about what it feels like to put your heart and soul into creating something only for people to take part of it for themselves, to be a woman who loves a man she admires and gives him everything she has even though he cannot love her back and gives her nothing in return. Trying to “make sense” of it only violates and destroys what is beautiful and true about it. It is a brutally honest film, one that is unashamed of its poetic ambitions and demands tremendous empathy from its audience; and, though its irreverent and ironic religious imagery has ruffled a few feathers, I can think of fewer things more genuinely subversive in contemporary American cinema.

  1. Unlike Nolan (another disciple of Kubrick who is often compared to him), Aronofsky seems most interested in the surreal, expressionistic, and romantic elements in Kubrick’s work, whereas Nolan consistently misreads Kubrick’s obsessive self-discipline as cold logic. []
  2. Umberto Eco, “Casablanca, or, the Cliches Are Having a Ball.” In Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), pp. 260-264. []