I’m Telling Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! On You
So let me get the quick stuff out of the way – I’m definitely glad I went to see it, I don’t know that I need a second viewing, I have not seen any of Darren Aronofsky’s other films, and this is absolutely not a film for everyone – kudos to Paramount for putting this film out in theaters, and curses to Paramount (but understandable curses) for not knowing how to market this film.
What on Earth Is This Movie?
Well, that’s gonna take me a little while to answer.
It’s About the Anxieties of Mothers
Before I say anything else, let me catalogue something – let me catalogue a mother’s anxieties:
- I’m afraid I’m not going to live up to some image of motherhood (typically, my mother-in-law’s image of motherhood) – this is the role played by Michelle Pfeiffer
- I’m afraid I don’t have the perfect home – insert entire film here
- I’m afraid the world will steal my husband away – insert entire film here
- I’m afraid the world will steal my child away – insert last act of the film here
- How am I supposed to keep a neat home when everyone around me is trying to prevent that from happening – insert in particular the “pick up dirty tissues/pieces of toilet paper in the bathroom” scene
- I’m afraid of having children in this world when war is out there killing children
- I’m afraid of having children in this world when religion is warping the minds of others – but also putting out “representatives” in the world who want to prey/pray on my children
- With all the work I do around here, why is none of it appreciated?
- Why am I being judged by strangers?
- At what point do I go from provider of hospitality to the actual welcome mat that provides for the wiping of feet?
- As the heart of the home (more on that later) – I provide all the love that I can – and it’s never enough – worse, it doesn’t come back to me!
- Other people take advantage of my maternal instincts (portrait of a mom whose son is wetting his pants and wants to use my bathroom and I have to let him)
So, I’m gonna stop there, but believe me, I could go on! In many ways, this film is a collage of motherly anxieties and fears.
It’s About the Assault on the Nest
Much of the most disturbing imagery in the film is tied to our protagonist’s attempts to defend her nest from a horde of assaults. “Don’t sit on the sink, it’s not braced yet…” How many times do we hear that? And how many times is it ignored? The bloody hole in the floor – and bear with me on this one – the bloody hole is a doorway (to the basement, yes, but it is also a doorway into some kind of truth hidden in a dark place). The birth canal is also a doorway that is sometimes bloody (and can be trespassed against one’s will). Most of the suffering in this film involves trespass into the nest – the house is raped repeatedly. The order of the house is raped repeatedly. The order of particular rooms is raped repeatedly – particularly the bedroom and the husband’s writing room. The order of the marriage is violated repeatedly – how many times does the “husband” make decisions without asking the “wife/mother” if it’s okay?
Borders are violated repeatedly throughout this film – I’m sure someone could go write a paper on this film coming out at a time when part of the United States wants to build a wall around the southern half of the continent to prevent illegal entry (country rape) while those already inside the country are having their rights stripped and/or violated (personal rights rape).
It’s About a Male Writer’s Interpretation of a Mother
Darren Aronofsky is obviously male, but that’s not the male I’m talking about. Lest we forget, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, while our protagonist, is a creation of Javier Bardem’s character – we actually see three versions of her in this film – the opening burn victim, the Jennifer Lawrence character, and then the new incarnation at the end. He’s recreating her over and over, slightly differently each time. Is he trying to perfect her? Or is he trying to come to terms with her? I don’t think the film gives us a clear hint on which direction it leans, but it’s obviously creating versions, so changing the model each time reflects at least some attempt to perfect something. But what is it? I don’t think we know.
However, and this harkens back to Mary Shelley, when a man tries to create something (without a woman), it’s possible it might lack a soul. He’s not getting something right. Message? Don’t know what it is.
It’s Telling Us Something about Transformation with Imagery
Frogs…why was there a frog in the secret cavern in the basement? Well, whenever I see a frog used in an image (“Gravity” comes to mind), I always see it as shorthand for a transformative process – a frog transforms visibly from egg to fish-like creature to four-legged animal in its life cycle. When I see transformation happening with versions (see the prior section), I think the message here may have something to do with transformation. Another aspect of frog imagery, however, is the common visual connection between a sperm and a tadpole – a sperm combines with something else to transform into a larger being, and a tadpole just transforms into a larger being – but in either case, transformation is key.
Gold-speckled strands…what’s up with that? Well, we see that in two places – when Jennifer Lawrence pours her medicine into her glass of water, at least initially it looks remarkably like the mysterious crystal we see at the beginning and end of the film (and which we see in its “destroyed” state in the middle). I’m not sure what the connection is – is it DNA? Is it a wedding ring? Is it coincidence? I think the fact that her medicine is coming out of what looks like the product of a Nineteenth Century pharmacy is loudly telling us – this clearly isn’t really medicine! Oxytocin is known as the “love chemical” or “love hormone” – it’s an internally generated chemical that makes us happy when we’re in love – it’s a drug. And at the end of the film, the crystal removed from her chest is clearly called “her love for him” – so pretty sure there’s something there. The husband has to regenerate the mother from this essence each time it is destroyed by…fire!
Fire…what’s up with fire? Well, fire is another gold-speckled strand. It’s destructive and it warms us – just like love. It can be all consuming or it can be enabling – just like a mother’s love. I’m pretty sure there’s something equating love and fire in this film. Fire is also VERY transformative – and some of the first images in the film show sooty hands (the aftermath of fire) as a creative process happens, transforming ash to physical matter.
Okay, But What About the Film Itself?
Lighting – lots and lots of beautiful lighting.
Cinematography – lots and lots of haunting cinematography.
And again, like “Gravity” – it’s not a movie that’s really trying to tell you what it is. “Gravity” is a clear adventure story, but it’s also much more, particularly on the transformation front. We see a character evolve a lot in “Gravity” – but you were probably too wrapped up in complaining that it didn’t have a lot of plot to notice (come on, admit it!). “Gravity” did a wonderful job with economizing much of its story because it didn’t want to focus on story – it was trying to tell a bigger story than its plot (can you tell I love that film?).
“Mother!” is a marvelous film in that it said screw you if you only focus on story – we always assume that films MUST have plots that are clear – as a result, it’s rare that we truly see film stretching its borders. James Cameron can spend all the money he wants on blue people and CGI worlds and I don’t feel he’s done a bit to transform film (and I like his films!). He’s made the colors brighter. I love a good plot – but when I look at a film like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” – I marvel at it because at some point it stops holding onto plot as the only thing that matters (and that’s coming from a novelist who’s in love with plot engineering). Like “Mother!”, “Brazil” plays with time. Time as a constant can make a story predictable, can’t it? You can also kill a good story by coming up with the unexpected time shift – it’s gotta be earned, though, doesn’t it? I think “Mother!” played fair in that in the first five minutes you could tell that a backwards transform was happening – soot typically doesn’t become solid – it’s usually the other way around.
I admired greatly how the last third of the film was kind of a hodgepodge of scenes from other films – “Night of the Living Dead”, “Assault on Precinct 13”, “Rio Bravo” – do you notice a theme there? The last third of the film was…a western, and the fort fell to the onslaught of larger forces.
Just like every fort falls – our childhood homes fall apart for whatever reasons – and I’m pretty sure at the heart of all of this – that’s what this film is about. A house fallen. And the desire to rebuild it and somehow get it right this time.
And isn’t that a message we all need to hear right now? In America?
I don’t think this will ever hit my top ten favorite films, but man, did it get my gray matter going, and for that, I say thanks, Darren!