Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is so much movie that critics April Wolfe and Alan Scherstuhl have elected to sync up Pacific Rim–style to take it on. Warning: The discussion below delves right into what we might call spoilers if a movie like Mother! could be spoiled. Now let’s drift.
Alan: Each fall, Hollywood works a profitable variant on the old Jean-Luc Godard claim that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. In the weeks before Halloween, it’s more like an actress and a basement, or a rambling old house, a place for her to wander in a nightdress, stalked by the camera, her harrowing painstakingly staged and shot for our allurement. No matter what ghost or killer is after her, she’s always truly haunted by us, by our fascination with witnessing her brought to the edge of madness or death. Aronofsky’s perverse study in provocation honors the basic tenets of the woman-gets-terrorized genre and then asks us why we enjoy it — how much pain do we truly want to see a movie star suffer, and how much can we endure seeing taken away from her character? Outside of Get Out, will any studio film this year dare a scene with the implicating power of the one here where the mob that has claimed so much of the Jennifer Lawrence character’s life throws her to the floor and tears away her clothes? Isn’t that what the internet did to Lawrence in real life?
Considering the scene of unholy communion that goes down in the last reel, I’m not surprised the film has been so divisive. But I do find the claims about its horrific wildness overblown. It’s often quiet, the dread in Lawrence’s eyes, which we see in many intense close-ups, or in her gait as we follow her about the house. Much of it plays like an uncommonly thoughtful slow-burn Blumhouse horror production, minus jump scares and sometimes crashed by upper-crust pricks from a Buñuel. Were you surprised by what Mother! actually is?
April: Early reactions of disgust on social media led me to believe Mother! would somehow assault my morals and leave me shaken by its horror, or at the very least give me a serious case of the vapors. But I would agree with your Blumhouse reference here because I was surprised to find how humorous the film was and how absolutely self-aware Aronofsky seems to be about it, a departure from his more obviously self-serious pictures — I don’t believe we were meant to giggle at Jared Leto’s missing limb in Requiem for a Dream.
But nearly from the outset of this film, Aronofsky draws a sly smiley face on the mirrors in his funhouse of horrors, and I couldn’t help but smirk at the distorted images looking back at us. This twisted, bureaucratic humor is something I’ve been waiting for the director to tap into for years, as it seems a kind of reckoning with the obvious influence Orson Welles’s The Trial has had on his most visceral works, specifically Pi. I think of the scene where Javier Bardem — as “Him” — invites hordes of total strangers into the home that he shares with the character the credits call Mother (Lawrence), so those strangers can mourn the death of a man Mother knows little about, and how from there the sequence then devolves into a kind of mad fun, as the grief-stricken guests morph into rowdy revelers. Multiple times, Mother admonishes drunken partiers for sitting on a sink that she hasn’t yet braced, until they churlishly tear it down just to annoy her, while also proving her right about the foundation’s frailty. I laughed out loud when the pipes burst, but it was also at that moment I decided this film was about the conflict between a God seen as male and a Mother Earth as female, and how his creations of thoughtless vanity then wreaked havoc on her terrain — oh, arrogant humanity.
Yet in a close-following scene (if we can call them “scenes”), Aronofsky depicts the guests turning rabid, grabbing for any piece of the couple’s home they can take as a memento, which gave me an icky feeling that we may actually be watching a metaphorical reenactment of Aronofsky and Lawrence’s real-life romance, wherein outsiders, entranced by their need to worship these “gods,” feel they must possess something of the couple.
Allegorically, this could refer to the press and the fans, and one can’t help but feel uncomfortable thinking of the tour of late-night shows Lawrence had to make in advance of the film and how each one would require she give up a new little anecdote from the couple’s life together to appease us. In a sense, this film seemed to be about chaos and the creation of everything from it. Did you find the film funny? Was your reading of Mother! different?
Alan: Honestly, I find the film too slippery — to its credit — to sign up with any of the readings that are going around. Yes, I see some biblical parallels in it, and, yes, that hokey business with the jeweled heart and cycles of creation invites us to think in terms of parable or allegory. But the characters here aren’t fabric cutouts to be displayed on a Sunday school felt board. You note how, for you, the crypto-pagan stuff about the despoiling of nature also edged into a Stardust Memories–like gripe against the rubes wanting their piece of celebrities. Some smart viewers I’ve spoken to have found that mutability frustrating, as they can’t pin it neatly down, or it doesn’t honor the usual narrative arcs of psychological “realism” — to me, that’s what makes the film fascinating beyond its compelling moment-to-moment craft. Art itself should seek a restraining order against anyone who insists, “Here is the one thing that Mother! means!”
What interested me most, beyond the tense pleasure of the filmmaking and the ongoing surprise of where Aronofsky next would push us, is not the intimations of divinity school philosophy. It’s that no matter how sickeningly that floor-wound gapes or the toilet-flesh pulses, or no matter how absurdly the mourners/worshipers/cops in riot gear pile into the house like waiters in A Night at the Opera’s stateroom scene, the film always seems an interrogation of what few things women get to do in the movies.
Lawrence’s “Mother” starts as one of those hoary roles that only goes to the very young: the muse to an older genius. He has connections to the outside, and knows much more than she does about the lives of the people who keep invading her home, while she never steps outside. How often have we seen that in a movie, where the driven dude protagonist inhabits a world of adventure, and then his life companion is an interrupting afterthought, a killjoy, or, eventually, a hostage?
In Mother! we inhabit the mind of that afterthought, a character who exists in a kind of limbo, tending to the home while the great man strives. So, Lawrence’s “Mother” stays in the house, renovating, but when some other family’s dynastic drama keeps crashing into her life, she’s expected by everyone around her to be invested in it all, to set aside her small story to be a bit player in theirs.
Like any of us would be in that position, she’s unsettled not just of the occasional visions of icky gore but by the impositions continually inflicted upon her by strangers who act as if she’s the unreasonable one. And then, as so often happens in real life, after everything she’s tried to prevent happens, she’s left to clean up everyone else’s mess. In some ways, it’s as honest a treatment of motherhood as I’ve ever seen on film — and the baby’s only around for moments!
I laughed several times during this film that I’ve heard called humorless. The loudest, most satisfying laugh: When the husband tells her, after the climax, that it’s up to her to forgive. To hell with gnostic interpretations or whatever — that’s what blinkered, selfish real-world men always say to the women who have been abused.
April: As a woman who’s deeply contemplated motherhood, I found my immediate instinct was to eschew any creeping thoughts I’d had about the literalness of being a human female life- and caregiver, but I can’t help but nod in agreement with your assessment about a woman’s duty to clean up the mess that others have left, along with that assumption of unreasonableness when a woman dares complain about her station. She is not an actor; she is a reactor. When she places her hand on the wall of the house and communes with its/her heart, the very foundation of the place shakes, as though it were either angry or annoyed by her restful pause and inability to rein in her narcissistic partner — everyone faults the mother.
What I feel compelled to say, which can get lost in the myriad interpretations we may have of the film’s story or meaning, is that for all its self-indulgences and excess and ghastly sights, I was quickly enamored with Mother! in a way I’ve not been with any other Aronofsky film. I found myself wishing I could see this performed live, which I know to some may seem I have a death wish, but the contained, maze-like space and the fluidity of the narrative — wherein a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey is nowhere in sight — reminded me of a dynamic theater piece. This is a film that obviously took much rehearsal to nail down, a production concept most contemporary cinema directors seem to have traded in for spontaneity or improvisation.
I was excited by every scene and possibility, though I concede I probably should have been dreading the conclusion the moment Mother was with child. To the grown man in my theater who, ten minutes before the credits rolled, stood up, threw down his bag of M&Ms, and pronounced loudly, “This movie sucks!” before stomping from the theater in a huff, I must ask: Have you heard of the Bible? Is not the Eucharistic miracle of transubstantiation of Jesus’ body and blood into bread and wine made edible for believers just as grotesque as Mother’s baby being devoured by the devout? It’s no wonder so many of our horror tropes can be traced back to our collective religion-based origin stories, as facing our dirty history and where we think we have come from may be the most terrifying thing we can imagine. Godard says a movie needs a girl and a gun. I would argue all it needs is a girl and an apple.