In the words of the Grand Galactic Inquisitor: “That was a weird one!”
For years, I woke up every morning (and the occasional afternoon), rolled over, and put my feet firmly on the floor in front of a poster for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. The Fountain was not a movie that I liked when I first saw it, nor was Black Swan. Over time, however, I came to love The Fountain in spite (or perhaps because) of its bizarre but ultimately human melding of pretentious universalism and cloying sentimentality. Even in my first viewing in the theater, I still loved the visuals of the film, especially the depictions of space as a vast sea of colors and reactions, which were actually taken from microphotography. And I guess I’ve come around some on Black Swan as well, although I doubt I’ll ever come to love it. All of this is to say that opinions can and do change. Sometimes I look back and can’t believe I gave Tenebrae anything less than a perfect 5 Stars. And 4 Stars for last year’s Ghostbusters? What was I smoking? In order to be fair, despite the fact that I walked out of the theater after seeing mother! and immediately wanted to pen my review, I decided to ruminate on it for a few days to see if my feelings about the movie changed at all.
And, hey, they did! The more time that passes, the less I like it. I better get this down on paper while I still have some positivity. And maybe while I still have some negativity as well. Good or bad, this one’s going to be on my mind for a while to come, and I get the feeling it’s going to go up and down.
On my Fountain poster, there was a pull-quote from film critic Glenn Kenny: “As deeply felt as it is imagined.” This is essentially true of all of Aronofsky’s films that I’ve seen (of his recent work, I’ve only missed Noah and The Wrestler): they are all films with a great depth of imagination and arresting visuals, paired with emotional gravitas that varies wildly but usually works because of strong performances by powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Ellen Burstyn, and, for all that people love to mock her, Natalie Portman. It doesn’t really apply in the case of mother!, however. This is a cast full of powerful performers, from Javier Bardem to Jennifer Lawrence to Ed Harris and (my ride or die) Michelle Pfeiffer, but even their presence makes for a film that lacks the emotional resonance that it’s shooting for; it aims for the moon and misses, but it doesn’t land among the stars, it plummets back to earth as a fiery wreck, breaking up in the atmosphere and never again reaching the grounding of earth.
Although I went into this film as blind as I possibly could, avoiding all pre-release interviews and clickbait, I don’t foresee being able to fully discuss this film without going into the major plot elements and my interpretation of the events of the narrative. This is going to be a spoiler-heavy review, so abandon ship now all ye who wish to view the film with fresh eyes and clear hearts. This plot summary may not vary far from others you may have already seen, but I intend to only note things I plan to discuss. Ok? Let’s go.
The film opens on Javier Bardem’s character “Him” placing a crystal with a fiery center in a podium, which causes a burned home to regenerate, including the appearance of Jennifer Lawrence’s character, “mother.” She is working on restoring a glorious octagonal Victorian house to its former glory after a fire: plastering walls, repainting, and generally doing all of the heavy lifting while Bardem’s writer character, whom we later learn is a poet, sits in his study (which contains the crystal from the opening scene) and struggles with his writer’s block. One day “the man” (Harris) appears, supposedly after having been told that their home was a bed and breakfast. The poet welcomes him into the house over Lawrence’s character’s protests, and the two men spend the night drinking and carousing. The next morning, mother awakens to find herself alone before stumbling upon her husband helping the man, now with a wound where his back ribs are, to vomit in a commode. This prompts the appearance of “the woman” (Pfeiffer), the man’s wife, who slinks about making innuendo and asking invasive questions about how often the (ostensibly) younger couple have sex, do they love each other, and, of course, when is Lawrence’s character just going to have a baby already?
They reveal that they are actually fans of the poet’s work, and Pfeffer’s character finally manages to find her way into his inner sanctum, accidentally breaking the crystal and driving the poet into a rage; he boards up his study. As the homeowners prepare to kick the interlopers out of their house, the latter’s two sons (Domnhall Gleeson as the elder and Brian Gleeson as the younger) arrive and bicker about their inheritance, leading to a physical altercation that results in the younger son’s death. This leads into an influx of a seemingly endless multitude of mourners into the house, who invade and act out, from childishly mocking Lawrence’s character for trying to preserve the sanctity of her bedroom to aggressively trying to sleep with her and using misogynistic slurs to ultimately breaking a sink and flooding the room. This finally prompts her to drive all of the uninvited guests out. Afterwards, she and the poet make love. She awakes the next morning and declares that she is pregnant. This delights her husband and breaks through the wall of his creative block, and he writes something new, something truly beautiful and transcendent (not that the audience gets to read it; we only see how people react). That’s when shit truly hits the fan.
Near the end of her pregnancy, the new work is published, to Lawrence’s character’s surprise, and their home is immediately descended upon by fans, who begin to besiege the house in the form of a mob. In a matter of minutes, they make their way into the house and begin to destroy it, repeating the poet’s declaration that all that lies within is to be shared. Violence erupts, as well as various rituals and rites that smack of religiosity and sectarianism, until their home becomes a war zone, complete with women being imprisoned, the poet’s publisher (Kristen Wiig) performing violent executions, refugees hiding in barracks, and explosions in every direction. The mother and her husband make their way to his boarded-up study, where she gives birth but refuses to let the poet take the baby out into the rest of the house; when she finally falls asleep, she awakes in a panic and rushes from the room to find that Bardem’s character is presenting their child to the assembled throng of his fans, who steal the baby.
Then they kill it. Then they eat it. (Then hundreds of people in dozens of cinemas in America stood up and left the theater. To address the elephant in the room, it was pretty gruesomely laid open, and I’m not shocked that middle America revolted at this… revolting display. I’m sure that they would say that I am too desensitized to this kind of thing based on my previous viewing habits–including La terza madre, which features a similar scene of infant cannibalism–but really it’s that I’m an adult who knows when a prop is just a prop. The disturbing shit is happening out there in the streets in the real world right now, and if you happen to be one of those people who found this beyond reprehensible but don’t have a thing to say in defense of the victim when children like Trayvon Martin are getting murdered in the real world, then you’re the one whose brain is fucked up. Get your priorities and your house in order. But I digress.)
This (baby eating) drives Lawrence’s character around the bend. She attacks some followers and is badly beaten by them in retaliation. She ultimately makes her way to the basement, where she succeeds in setting the house ablaze and killing everyone inside, save for the poet. He finds her burned body and asks her to make one last sacrifice on his behalf: she allows him to remove her heart, which he cracks like a nut or an egg to reveal another crystal identical to the one at the start of the film. He again places the crystal in its place, and the house begins to rejuvenate once more….
I’m embarrassed to say that the primary and most obvious metaphor of the film did not reveal itself to me during my first watch. As someone well versed with the Western Canon, the reinterpretation and revisitation of Biblical sources is as familiar to me as the smell of my childhood home or the shape of the tree outside my bedroom window. I was careful (and lucky) to avoid promotional materials, which meant that Aronofsky’s public declarations about the films allegorical intent were unknown to me until after the fact. Still, in retrospect it should have been obvious to me that the poet was meant to be God, that Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters were Adam and Eve, that their sons were Cain and Abel, that the broken sink was the great deluge, that Lawrence’s character’s child was Jesus, especially as the mass of fanatics ate of his flesh and experienced a kind of religious ecstasy. Aronofsky has also stated that the considered the title character to be representative of the earth, which is taken for granted by mankind, a group which in turn tears the world apart in the name of warring faiths and factionalism, until the earth turns on its guests and burns everything down. Also, I’m pretty sure Wiig is supposed to be the Catholic Church in this paradigm. But Roland Barthes and I are over here in the corner and we want you to know: the Author is dead, baby, dead, and you’re not beholden to what he has to say.
I read the film not as a mostly one-to-one allegorical fable about the rise and fall of mankind, but as being instead about the God Complex of the author, the artist who is so self-absorbed with their personal vision that they allow themselves to reach the point of total narcissism and personal deification, an apotheosis of the self. To me, this read true in the scenes in which we see Bardem’s character repeatedly surrender his privacy, the sanctity of his personal relationships, and even his own child to appease the reader and the audience. It made me think of the way that so many writers, myself included, stripmine their lives for story material, consciously and unconsciously. I wasn’t expecting Adam and Eve so I didn’t notice them when they arrived, and was more fascinated with wondering whether or not Aronofsky knew how unbearable the author (and thus he himself) seemed to be, based on the lens of my reading.
As chaos descends in the final act, I found myself looking for other ways to interpret the material, and thought that we were headed for a kind of H.P. Lovecraft’s Rosemary’s Baby scenario. There’s certainly enough textual evidence for the idea that the house is in reality an eldritch horror show under all the floorboards and the plaster, with the image of a beating, fleshy thing behind the walls and a Cronenbergian bladder/ulcer/boil/appendage (?) sticking out of the plumbing. There’s also a very Lovecraftian element to the way that the interior of the house descends into a Gilliamesque war zone that’s evocative of the indecipherable and incomprehensible chaos of films like Jacob’s Ladder and In the Mouth of Madness. I was rooting for this potential turn right up until the child was born and it was totally normal-looking (other than being ten months old like most movie “newborns”). My hopes that the film was going to transcend into something truly bizarre were dashed.
But if we instead take Aronofsky at his word, then everything is so obviously (and clumsily) literal that we’re left struggling to grasp the meaning of the more obtuse symbols that appear in the film? Take, for instance, the importance of Harris’s character’s lighter. This “Adam” smokes, much to “mother’s” chagrin; if she is Mother Earth, is she upset by the pollution of her perfect home, caused by self-destructiveness, and this is the reason for her ill temperament? If we accept this premise for the sake of argument, what are we to make of the fact that she deliberately loses the lighter–is this the earth hiding man’s self-destruction from him, and is the fact that Harris’s character later lights a cigarette on the stove despite having no lighter a metaphor for how mankind will continues to be self-destructive regardless of nature’s attempts to course correct? If we grant that these precepts are sine qua non of the thesis that man/Adam/mankind abuses the hospitality/household/habitability of mother/earth/Mother-Earth and that this is what ultimately leads to the destruction of the house/planet, we are still left with questions. Why does the lighter have a Nordic rune on it (it’s called a Wendehorn; you can also see it on the woman’s luggage clasps)? When the metaphorical first man arrives bearing fire, are we really supposed to draw no connection to the myth of Prometheus? Given that Promethean fire most often metaphorically stands for technology, is it mankind’s technical aptitude that mother despises, and if so, what does the fact that she uses this fire/technology/self-destruction to burn down the house mean? Is it that polluting the earth causes climate change and thus the ultimate death-by-heat of humanity?
Is it really just that one layer? Is it really so obvious and dumb? Or is it a matryoshka, with multiple obfuscated layers of meaning but also somehow just as dumb?
And what of “Cain” and “Abel”? Primogeniture, inheritance, and birthright are common narrative devices of the Judaic biblical canon, ranging from Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Ishmael to Joseph and his brothers, but those aren’t elements of the story of Adam and Eve’s eldest sons, whose altercation was the result of Cain making the wrong kind of pre-Messianic sacrifice in comparison to Abel’s proper profferation of his prettiest sheep (no, seriously, look it up). Fraternal jealousy is a hallmark of this tradition, but Cain and Abel competed for the affections of their creator, not their father. As such, one would think that there would be some interaction between either of the brothers and the poet before the slaying, but if there was it was too fast or subtle to be perceptible. Again, there’s so much (one could say too much) effort put into creating a one-to-one correlation between events in the film and Judaic myth that when that synchronization falls out of step, it highlights the shoddiness of the overall metaphor.
Which is to say: I think there may be a great movie in mother!, despite its flaws being as deeply felt as they are imagined. It just needed two or three more drafts before it could reach that potential. And if this film has taught us anything, it’s that writers who think they are gods, as well as gods who envision themselves as writers, don’t spend nearly enough time working out the kinks.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond