Yet another festival film has divided the masses in the way of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother! Making its rounds in Europe and playing TIFF 2017 in Toronto, and much like previous TIFF premiere The Witch from over a year ago, critics and viewers either love or hate this allegorical masterpiece that confounds the horror genre and elevates the artistic experience.
A married couple lives in a secluded house in the countryside. This rambling manor is a restoration project for the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a place for solitude and concentration for her writer husband (Javier Bardem). While she is his muse, he is still looking for inspiration and having difficulty putting pen to paper, but when a stream of strangers come to their door looking for a place to stay, things start to change. These guests are unwanted by the writer’s wife, disturbing her solitude and her vision for the home, yet they fuel and invigorate her husband, creating a fervour that will soon divide them in their lifelong pursuits.
When my boyfriend and I showed our tickets to one of the theatre staff, she immediately let us know that we could get a refund within the first half-hour of the film. The staff member felt she had to warn us about the film’s disturbing nature, as many movie-goers thought it was a family drama because of the title. With that red flag waved before we even sat down in the theatre, I wasn’t sure what we were about to witness, but I was scared I might find something to take issue with. This apprehension also came from earlier discussions during TIFF about the age difference between Jennifer Lawrence’s character, only known as Mother, and her husband Him, played by Javier Bardem. The May/December coupling was something to think about as it mirrored the real-life relationship of Aronofsky and Lawrence. Still, I couldn’t condemn the film simply because of that one detail without having seen it. I tend to avoid any reviews until I’ve seen the movie and written my own thoughts about it, and I made an extra effort to avoid as many articles as I could with Mother! I did see a few snippets of review headlines screaming the film’s shortcomings or brilliance in a few choice words, making me even more curious. Although I tried in vain to find something to dislike about Mother!, my final verdict is one of complete adoration for such a brilliant film.
There is so much to say about Mother! and so many layers to explore that I imagine theology, psychology, film and sociology Ph.D. students will have at it for decades. Aronofsky himself has said in several interviews that this film is about Mother Earth and her destruction, but you can see other themes based on the artist and religion. Whether you believe the film to be about the perishing earth, art, or the Bible, a common thread shows the struggle of creating and the sacrifice that the creator and those around them must endure.
*Some may find the next part of this review/analysis spoiler-filled, so reader be warned.*
As a creative person and someone who values solitude, I felt Mother’s horror as intruders destroyed her sanctuary. Her experiences are very close to a recurring nightmare I used to have about constant, unwanted visitors. I felt her husband’s frustration with not being able to create, desperately looking for an outlet or inspiration. When the intruders start to fuel his creativity, allowing the floodgates to open and his masterpiece to unfold, it’s a wave that many artists or writers want to capture and ride forever, constantly feeding the ego with praise and celebrity.
Mother and her husband are fairly archetypical in nature. The rosy-cheeked, blonde, blue-eyed representation of Mother Earth/Mary/the female side of creativity is young, vibrant and innocent, just the type of personification needed to feed the imagination of her older, more worldly husband. Aronofsky has said that Rosemary’s Baby was among the influences for the film. Like Rosemary Woodhouse, Mother is used for her spouse’s gain without her being in on the larger scheme of things, but there is a cyclical feel to her life and death. She will not be forced to choose to look after her child like Rosemary; in fact, Mother is in constant opposition to what is happening around her even though she is a major part of the cycle. She is there to tend to the home while her husband creates, but her efforts will be overshadowed and thwarted by intruders. Her role is so utterly mired in the feminine and her partner so male that the yin and yang of their relationship and power dynamics, while stereotypical, are poignant. Her desire to have children and bear fruit like Mother Earth is stunted by her husband’s own overbearing God-like desire to create and be adored. When she has a child, it is taken from her for his own egotistical reasons to placate his worshipers who have supported Him in his work and treat his writings like scriptures, confirming his role as an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.
Mother’s experience is very relatable as she struggles with her intuition. Her need to restore the house, listening to and nurturing its spirit, is acknowledged but not heeded, and she is placated by thin excuses or shunned for not going along with the crowd. At times her physical voice is drowned out by the chaos as her hard work is destroyed. The insecurity that comes with the terror of being completely alone in your pursuits needs a strong person to stand up for what they believe in. She does this in a constant cycle, sacrificing herself not as a victim but a martyr, a saviour, only to be resurrected in this weird and crazy cycle of life.
Technically speaking, I really enjoyed the camerawork reminiscent of the long takes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and the claustrophobic close-ups and tracking shots of Mother like in Rosemary’s Baby. It gives us Mother’s perspective, and we witness the action along with her. The audience was also as puzzled as Mother, with no clues save for some biblical references like Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel (played by Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian and Domhnall Gleeson, respectively); as well as the birth and devouring of Mother’s son seemingly symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ as one interpretation.
I must mention a wonderful surprise (at least for me!). Stephen McHattie appears as the zealot, a rabid follower of the writer’s work, stirring up the masses to worship the writer’s word. Those who know me know I love Mr. McHattie, so to see him in such a spectacular pageant of a film made me love and respect him even more. And speaking of pageants, I felt that mother! could somehow work as a stage play with the exaggerated chaotic action, and I would love to see that in the future.
I really can’t tell you how to react to mother! only what I’ve seen and experienced as I immersed myself in this film. Yes, you can see obvious influences of the Bible, Rosemary’s Baby, Birdman (in my opinion for the cinematic style), and all the other films mentioned by Aronofsky himself, but these influences melded to create something unique, new and quite simply brilliant. Whether you see it as a creationist story, an 11th-hour commentary on the state of the earth and environment as the director intended, a modern-day scripture about the artist ego, sacrifice and their art, there are allegories and symbolism for days in this film. It’s not to be missed.
[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]