Well, that was something.
Jennifer Lawrence’s mother! has finally arrived in theaters, and the general reaction can be summed up in three letters: WTF?
It’s clear that writer-director Darren Aronofsky is trying to say something with his new work, and that he wants to get people talking about that something. The problem is that no one quite seems able to agree on what that something is.
Ask 10 people who’ve just seen this movie what they think it’s “really” about, and you might get half a dozen different explanations. I know, because I did just that after seeing mother! for the first time at TIFF.
So what is mother! really about? Tl;dr version: Like any piece of art, it’s open to interpretation. It can be about whatever you think it is, even if what you think it is doesn’t necessarily line up with what its creators think it is.
Long version: Well … buckle in.
At first, the Darren Aronofsky-directed picture looks like a reasonably straightforward thriller about a haunted house, maybe, or a home invasion.
A photogenic couple (Lawrence and Javier Bardem) enjoy a tranquil existence in a large house surrounded by woods. He, a poet, is struggling with writer’s block as he tries to create his next masterpiece, while she spends all her time fixing up their home.
Then an unexpected visitor (Ed Harris) arrives. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, and then their sons (Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson). More guests follow. The visitors trash the place, ignoring the Mother’s pleas to behave. The party takes on the suffocating intensity of a nightmare, until a burst pipe sends all the visitors scattering out of the home.
A similar pattern repeats itself in the second half of the movie, with a few key differences. The second “party” is much, much more intense, and tips over into full-on surreality. And the Mother, this time, is pregnant, eventually giving birth to a baby boy who is killed by the crowd.
Ultimately, the Mother burns down the entire house in a fit of rage. Only her husband survives. He removes her heart, transforming it into a crystal that restores the home to its former pristine state. A new woman appears as his wife, suggesting that the cycle will begin anew.
With the caveat that – as I said above – everything about mother! is open to interpretation, it seems pretty clearly to be a retelling of the Bible (both New and Old Testaments). Bardem’s character, listed in the credits as “Him,” is God, and Lawrence’s is Mother Earth.
It’s not a strictly faithful adaptation, and elements from other religious or mythological traditions seem to be present as well. But the parallels are too obvious to ignore. The brothers’ dispute is a version of the Cain and Abel story; the kitchen-sink disaster is a stand-in for the Biblical flood; the cannibalization of the Mother’s baby is a very literal depiction of Communion; and so on.
However, while the Bible as we know it concerns God and man, mother! filters that story through the perspective of Mother Earth, who never asked for any of us terrible people to be here, and who would very much like us to get down from the sink, please, it’s not braced.
The Biblical allegory, though, is just the foundation for a whole host of other themes that come into play. Aronofsky himself has hinted that mother! is about climate change. We humans are the guests, coming into Mother Earth’s home and then trashing the place.
The visitors in mother! pry into places they’re not wanted, and scoff at the Mother’s repeated pleas and warnings. They make messes that they don’t bother to clean up. When they do try to help, they only make things worse (as in the case of two guests who start painting the house). They tear up walls just “to show we were here,” and snatch whatever they like out of some insatiable greed.
The home gets more and more crowded, tipping past the point of no return before we even know it. Finally, the Mother simply torches the place – you know, kind of like how Mother Earth keeps responding to our environmental sins by burning up hotter and hotter.
Throughout all this insanity, it’s really only the Mother who wants the guests out. The poet likes having them around, as he finds their presence invigorating and inspiring. “It’s so nice to talk to someone who understands my work,” he tells his wife. (“I love your work,” she responds, hurt.) He drinks in their admiration, welcoming fans, and then journalists, fanatics, and followers.
But they want something from him in return. They demand his time, his attention, his things. They descend upon his home en masse, cameras flashing, and crowd in around him. They claim to love him, but can’t stop themselves from attacking his wife, invading the couple’s privacy, destroying their home – and, eventually, murdering and consuming their child.
Reacting to all of this onscreen is one of the most famous women in the world. Lawrence surely knows what it’s like to be mobbed and worshipped and tormented by eager crowds. mother!, in that context, starts to look like a condemnation of modern celebrity culture, which only demands more, more, more from its idols – though it also acknowledges, through the poet, that there can be something in it for the idols as well.
The husband may be the artist in this couple, but the Mother is a creator, too. She’s responsible for building and maintaining the house. Later, the two finally create something together – a baby boy.
Once their creations are offered up to the world, though, the couple loses control of them. The poet’s words are beloved, but inspire a rabid, possessive sort of fandom. The Mother allows people into her home who compliment her handiwork, and then carelessly destroy everything she’s so carefully constructed.
When the Mother finally has the baby, she cannot bear to let him out into the world, and no wonder. Her husband shares their son with the world anyway, and her worst fears prove well founded. The kid is literally torn to shreds by the greedy crowd. It’s not unlike the way that general audiences are currently ripping apart this movie, or critics like yours truly are breaking it down piece by piece.
Throughout his filmmaking career, Aronofsky has demonstrated an obsession with obsession. Each of his protagonists are fixated on something – drugs, glory, artistic perfection – and willing to pay any price to get what they want, usually destroying themselves and the people around them in the process.
The protagonist of mother!, on the other hand, is a comparatively passive character who just wants to be left alone in peace with her husband. To the extent that she’s obsessed with anything, it’s simply caring for her husband, their child, and their home. It’s the poet who is bedeviled by an insatiable need to create, and to be adored for his creations.
mother!, then, feels like a new way of looking at Aronofsky’s stories of obsession – from just outside of it, from the perspective of the collateral damage. “What hurts the most is that I was never enough,” the Mother tells her husband in the end. His response is hardly reassuring. “Nothing is ever enough,” he tells her. “I couldn’t create if it was.”
Despite its title, mother! isn’t actually about a mother for most of its running time – the protagonist has her baby about two-thirds of the way through. But it’s certainly interested in the cultural concept of motherhood all the way through.
Even before she becomes pregnant, Lawrence’s character is the ultimate nurturer. She cooks and cleans with barely a word of complaint – “I got it” seems to be the most-used phrase in her vocabulary. She’s protective of those she loves (her husband and their child), and makes clear that she’ll go to any lengths for them. She’ll even keep her son away from his own father if she needs to.
When Pfeiffer’s sighs, “You give and you give and you give and it’s just never enough,” she’s talking about her own son – but she could just as well be talking about the Mother’s relationship with her poet, or their son. The poet’s publisher reassures the Mother that her hard work was “worth it,” but it feels like cold comfort when her husband can barely be bothered to look her in the eye.
It’s a dynamic that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship of unequal devotion – whether it’s parenthood or a bad marriage. And if you’re a gossip hound, it might make you wonder what this says about Aronofsky’s relationship with his ex-wife, Rachel Weisz, or his new girlfriend, Lawrence. As one critic put it, mother! kinda seems like a good argument against dating filmmakers.
For that matter, mother! also seems like a pretty strong stance against house parties. We can’t rule out the possibility that this entire film is just Aronofsky’s extremely passive-aggressive way of letting all of his friends know that he thinks they’re slobs and he wishes they’d stop coming over.
If this all seems like a lot to take in, it still only fees like the half of it. We’re 1,500 words deep here, and I’ve barely even touched upon the film’s treatment of gender and sexuality, or its intriguing implication that this entire Biblical storyline is a cycle that repeats itself over and over, or any number of other themes, allusions, and references crammed into this movie.
mother! almost seems designed to inspire arguments about what it all means – which kind of makes sense for a Biblical allegory, if you think about it.
At one point in mother!, the poet turns to his wife, beaming about his fans’ reaction to his latest work. “They understand everything, but everyone in a slightly different way,” he gushes. Honestly, that’s exactly how it feels to discuss mother! with other people.