“Blessed art thou among women/
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb,/
“The whole book’s gender biased…Read that book again sometime. Women are painted as bigger antagonists than the Egyptians and Romans combined. It stinks.”
-Salma Hayek, Dogma
Spoilers to follow
As of this writing, there are as many theories as to what mother! is about as there are viewers of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. Everyone seems to agree that the film is a naked and heavy-handed allegory, but no one can seem to agree on what exactly the movie is saying with such a heavy-hand.
Depending on which article you’re reading or podcast you’re listening to, mother! is/could be about (deep breath) nuclear catastrophe, environmental catastrophe, the Christian Bible as rendered as a domestic horror story, the evolution of religion, gaslighting, destructive relationships, systemic misogyny, the trauma of being an artist, the trauma of being in a relationship with an artist, the trauma of being a celebrity, the trauma of being in a relationship with a celebrity, the cycles of death and life in earth, the cycles of love and loss in art, a really weird Giving Tree riff, or just Darren Aronofsky’s two-hour long, $30 million pre-emptive apology/retroactive apology to Jennifer Lawrence/Rachel Weisz for fucking up their relationship.
(gasps for air)
I am not here to tell you what mother! is about. This is not going to be an exhaustive breakdown of the film, frame by frame, to explain what Darren Aronofsky is attempting to say and do with this film. The truth is, I’m not convinced there is a singular reading that will coalesce every piece of the film into one whole. mother! is huge and intimate, intensely beautiful and grotesquely ugly, overwhelmingly tragic and yet filled to the brim with life.
So I’m not going to try and tell you how to react to mother!. I’m just going to talk through the part of the film that most deeply affected me, the thematic throughline that I have continued to chew on since seeing the film last week.
Let’s talk about the Virgin Mary.
But first! A quick breakdown for people who are reading this without having seen the film: mother! opens with an unnamed young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) living an idyllic life in an idyllic little house in an idyllic forest clearing with her older husband, an unnamed poet (Javier Bardem). The woman is more than content with their quiet lives of isolation, focusing her energies on restoring the house (we’re told — and catch glimpses in the opening frames — that there was a fire that left Bardem with nothing but the blackened bones of his former home). But he’s blocked, unable to write and unable to fuck and unable to focus.
That all changes when a strange, sickly man (Ed Harris) arrives. He claims to have come in search of a bed-and-breakfast, but the young woman susses out quickly that he’s a fan of her husband, that he sought them out. But The Poet is delighted by this man and the stories he tells, feeling the creative juices beginning to flow for the first time in what feels like forever. So pretty soon the older man is staying with them. And shortly thereafter the man’s wife is there (Michelle Pfeiffer, almost feral) and she’s aggressive and lecherous and drunk and she’s always pushing to find out dirty secrets and hidden truths, going places she’s told not to go and touching things she’s told to avoid.
And they have two sons, a kind one and an angry, jealous one and those sons have a violent confrontation and pretty soon the house is flooded with people who ignore the woman and her protestations and destroy the things she has worked so hard to build up. And all the while, The Poet is excusing the awful behavior, ignoring it, acting like it’s all in the woman’s head and she’s blowing things out of proportion.
And then there’s a for-real flood. A flood that clears out all the people. And after the flood, the woman and the man finally consummate their marriage for the first time in who knows how long. And when she awakens, she knows she’s pregnant.
Let’s start with what I think is a textual given: Javier Bardem is God. In the credits, his is the only name that gets capitalized (“Him”), and he even identifies himself as such in the final sequence (when asked his name, his palindromic reply echoes God’s response to Moses when he asked Him what His name was).
(Quick sidenote: While mother! may explicitly frame Bardem as God, that should not preclude other interpretations of the film. Aronofsky could be using God as a stand-in for the artist, for the male ego, for societal forces, etc. etc. Think of it as a Russian nesting doll of theme and symbols.)
So what does that make Jennifer Lawrence? What is “mother”? Is she the earth? Is she nature? Is she the female half of God’s presence? If so, why is her name not capitalized like His?
Again, I think it’s most likely foolhardy to try and ascribe a single universal meaning to anything in this film (especially because Aronofsky throws in weird shit like Lawrence constantly mixing some kind of yellow powder into her water which she then chugs when she’s panicked or upset. WHAT IS THAT?).
But as someone who was raised Catholic, who went through all the sacraments up through Confirmation, who spent most Sunday mornings of his youth in church, and who spent a fair amount of weekday afternoons attending CCD so he could receive those sacraments, much of the second half of this film can’t help but read like the story of Mary, mother of Christ, played as visceral body horror.
If mother! is not the best performance Jennifer Lawrence has ever given (I think it is, but I’m still a few episodes behind on The Bill Engvall Show), it is without question the most physically intense and deeply felt effort by her on film yet. Aronofsky’s camera hovers close to her face at all times, like a mosquito she just can’t shake. It moves with her, dodges in close during the most harrowing moments, lingers over her ruined visage as she screams and weeps and bleeds. mother! grows more and more far-out and surreal as it progresses (a house party becomes a militarized conflict becomes a post-apocalyptic society in the span of, like, minutes) but Lawrence’s suffering is unfalteringly human. The scenario may be heightened allegory but Lawrence’s agony is so raw as to be uncomfortable to sit through. In that sense, she reaches many of the same heights as Natalie Portman in Aronofsky’s Black Swan, with the difference being that in that film, Portman’s mortification is driven by the self, whereas Lawrence’s unnamed protagonist is almost entirely a victim, a woman whose only crime was being in love and believing that love would be returned.
Aronofsky’s technique is geared around entrenching you entirely in her perspective. mother! is an intensely sensual film, with the sound design capturing every squeak of floorboards, every scrape of brush against wall. When Lawrence presses a hand to the wall, we sink inside and see the ethereal heart beating.
These elements reach a crescendo in the sequence that I’m sure is driving a lot of the “F” Cinemascores: When Lawrence falls asleep, Bardem steals their newborn baby and displays him to the crowded mass of His adoring fans. The people take up the baby and begin crowdsurfing the infant. The baby is screaming, Lawrence is screaming, dozens of people are yelling over each other.
And then the neck is snapped. A wail goes up. Lawrence desperately pushes through the crowd to reach her child but by the time she catches up to the baby, his corpse has been split open upon an alter and her husband’s supplicants are feasting on his body and blood.
Aronofsky’s not the first person to highlight the cannibalistic overtones of the Eucharist (hell, that was the smear used to demonize and vilify early Christians when they were just a nascent cult) but the word I keep coming back to with mother! is visceral. It’s one thing to hear, “This is my body, this is my blood,” every week at church before they start passing around the wine and cardboard-tasting wafer, but to actually see the sacrament rendered in bloody, uncompromising reality, to see a baby splayed-out on an altar while supplicants eat his flesh and praise his name, that’s another thing entirely. Seen from this perspective, the sacrifice of Christ could not possibly be worth it for Mary. Nothing could possibly be worth this.
And when Lawrence, one of the most widely beloved and acclaimed performers going right now, responds with horror and grief and revulsion, when she has the audacity to respond, she is rewarded by being knocked down, called bitch, called cunt, stomped on, punched, assaulted.
Shortly thereafter, she ends the world. It’s hard to blame her.
If there’s a common thread through Darren Aronofsky’s filmography, it’s sincerity. His movies feel. At the risk of straying into operatic histrionics, his films are overstuffed with towering emotion and crushing lows. But while his films are deeply intimate and dialed in to the daily rushes of love and death and hope and sorrow that are the human experience, they are also occupied with questions of the divine and the cosmos.
Aronofsky has tried in the past to marry these twin tracts. You can see it in The Fountain (still his masterpiece, IMO, if only for Clint Mansell’s score), but you can find it even more explicitly in Noah, a Biblical epic that has the stones to posit God (or, “The Creator” as He is known in that film) as an absent, wrathful force. No wonder the Bible Belters got offended (well, that and the rock-monster angels. But screw them, those things were freaking rad). Noah is a film in which being chosen by the divine is not a blessing but a true curse, a film about the loneliness of faith and the toll that such devotion takes on the soul.
If Noah is this idea explored, mother! is this idea perfected (it should be noted that the back-half of Noah plays like a remix of The Shining, with a mad Noah chasing Hermione Granger around the ark with a hatchet because he believes she has gone against His will by…getting pregnant). With mother!, the duet of Aronofsky’s technique and Lawrence’s performance etch in excruciating detail every hurt and wound that comes with the “honor” of having been chosen to stand within the presence of the divine. And while there is certainly room left for hope as the cycle replenishes itself and life begins anew, we cannot forget the violence that brought us to this place of peace. We cannot forget the woman whose love and agony was just used as one small piece in a plan that she could never understand and a cycle she could never have escaped. It’s just not fair, and the movie tears your heart out as surely as He plucks hers from her chest.
No wonder people would rather go watch the movie where kids beat the shit out of that clown.