Film discussion

Decoding mother! A fascinating conundrum

Tony Black unpicks Darren Aronofsky's mother!...

Your first instinct on leaving a showing of mother! could well be exasperation, confusion, even being left with a distinct whiff of pretension which many have accused Darren Aronofsky of peddling in what could well be his most personal movie to date, and almost certainly his most divisive. For every two people who decry mother! as a work of genius, two more will almost certainly describe it less a work of art, more a cinematic fart. Who’s right? Well, in the time honoured fashion of subjectivity, no one. No arbiter exists to decide whether mother! is pure brilliance or something Aronofsky should have kept locked in his head.

The better question, honestly, is “what the hell does the whole thing mean?”

Fair warning, me hearty shipmates, for here on in, thar be spoilers.

Contrary to what you may hear, mother! is neither impenetrable, nor incomprehensible. It exists on a fundamental level as a character piece about a destructive, unhealthy marriage, but equally operates with levels of deep-set allegory and symbolism. Aronofsky himself has discussed in interviews how people have taken different things from his work here, but you wonder if that’s a conscious choice or not?

Jennifer Lawrence, in playing the eponymous Mother, hyperventilated so much while filming one of the intense central sequences she’s needed oxygen and cracked a rib, and even almost had a repeat of these feelings while at the premiere. She became invested as an actress in the relationship with Javier Bardem’s Him, and the core emotional truth of that relationship.

Some have speculated that said relationship is more autobiography for Aronofsky than mere allegory but this, to a degree, seems spurious. The director seems more tortured about his relationship with nature and religion than he does any kind of ex-wife or partner; he’s more likely to be exploring, with some level of self-awareness, his own God-complex in how he frames Him as a symbolic representation of love and hope for the world.

Him being Aronofsky is too clear, and lacks an understanding of that deeper Biblical allegory, and indeed the exploration of ‘mother Earth’ which the director has discussed while doing press for the movie. Oddly enough, though, the film doesn’t feel complex and layered in the same way as Aronofsky’s best work, such as Black Swan.

mother! ends up being not just linear, but cyclical. Lawrence’s character is both a woman who craves and needs love and a level of control, while allegorically she represents Gaia, the natural world, invaded and torn apart by savages, by the baser instincts of humanity. Easily the most striking sequence in Aronofsky’s film is the protracted ‘dinner party’ scene, beginning with an oddly-timed visit by pilgrims before descending into fifteen minutes of completely intense chaos, which runs the gamut from the religious embrace of the people to the post-apocalyptic destruction of life, leading into the Armageddon and Second Coming of the final act. Bizarre, surreal and magnetic, it’s audacity as a sequence is only matched by that rippling sense of a darkly comic undercurrent.

Does Aronofsky even believe in the Biblical story? You only have to watch Noah, which takes the most bizarre dramatic license with the story of the Ark, to see the director seems obsessed with the idea of religious truth, and certainly how it connects with more of a Pagan, natural world outlook. Noah, of course, sees the literal destruction of the world by unholy wrath, whereas mother! symbolically tears that world apart by having Eden itself invaded by pilgrims and, indeed, sinners, encapsulated by the dysfunctional family of Ed Harris’ Man. Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Woman is quite glorious; filled with sin, haunted by bitterness, she is everyone’s giving mother and a bulwark for Lawrence’s trapped figure – she could end up the same way.

This is where you have to wonder if Aronofsky truly believes in love, too. He’s explored love before, particularly in The Fountain, which told a love story across time and space with a bittersweet touch. He’s also fascinated by obsession, as we saw in Black Swan. mother! brings both of these together in Bardem’s Him, who may not be a proxy for Aronofsky (an Aronoproxy?), but the director could be exploring his own psychology through the man’s craving for love, ironically least from the person most willing to give it – Mother.

Allegorically this works on the scale of Man and Gaia, Man rejecting Gaia’s instinct to protect what they have as he sunders Eden, but from a relationship perspective Bardem’s character is only truly happy when embracing the love of his fans, strangers, the people who love his art yet conflate it with loving him. It’s a level of self-loathing, in many respects.

A mother’s love is complicated, but it’s also unconditional. Aronofsky wants not just to love Mother, he wants us to protect Gaia, but in the end he fears we can do neither. Hence the cycle of self-destruction, as Eden burns and Him has to literally carve out that love and try again, as Man has reinvented and reborn himself over millennia after almost coming to the brink of Armageddon. Aronofsky seems to believe we can survive that ending, and there is hope by the end of mother! that perseverance may yield a different outcome, but does Aronofsky believe that? The jury is very much out. We may never know. We may never need to.

Much as a film like mother! will be decried and pilloried, it speaks to a level of deeper, absurdist, surreal reality few filmmakers are willing, or daring enough, to try.

What did you think of mother!? Let us know!

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