The very first thing that mother! does is make you think that it’s about gender roles. The first thing that I have to do to talk about the film is dispel that. It’s not just about a vain male and an instinctual female: it’s about mythic figures, an idea of the genders detached from any social context at all. It’s not about roles but about natures, as defined by mythology, by the stories that guide our instinctive perception of ourselves and of what drives us. Darren Aronofsky – never one to pare his visions for the pleasure of others – takes gender studies and makes that seem like a small idea. This metaphorical terror he’s made is so much more. It’s a total contemplation of the way humans think about their own love.
Our introduction to the house where mother lives with her husband is hostile, but more so because it finds so much tension in her desire to make it perfect. The movie is metaphorical immediately. You can’t quite understand mother! until you see the cast list, with roles such as mother, Him, man, woman, herald, cupbearer, and healer. Aronofsky is a movie man with a Baroque heart. He reserves nothing; he blocks every scene like he’s restoring a Vermeer. Mother! can’t always live up to the burden of its imagery – what child could? – but it fights for its life with composition. Every time I think the movie is getting too redundant or showy, it comes up with another incredible tableau from the mother’s gaze. Mother! is full of shots that could have been a painting, the kind that the academics swooned over and the peasants thought was a waste of perfectly good color. No, you're not a peasant if you dislike this film. But those who do (the movie currently holds a CinemaScore of "F") seem to dislike it completely. It's not just something they hate, but something they don't believe in. This feeds into Aronofsky’s ego: he makes mother! like he knew we wouldn't "get it."
Take the first scene of mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wandering her house. She’s distractingly sexy, helplessly, fairytale princess sexy, and I was thinking the movie already hit a symbolic snag: how is it going to empathize with someone it abuses? But Aronofsky is already turning our own sight against us: he knows we’re looking at her beauty this way, and knows we’re critical of a movie that makes us do it. He’s going to put that look in context. We can see that Him (Javier Bardem) loves her -- most of all he loves that she loves him. He’s made love a form of vanity. She’s rebuilt this house for Him, every scrap and detail, every table leg, and she would say of it what she says when he asks (lovingly) to be served drinks with his houseguest. She says, “I’m happy to do it.” Aronofsky makes sure we know that she really is, as happy as any artist in their chosen craft. Hers happens to be service.
She mixes her own paints trying to get the color to exactly match “His” memory. When she feels the wall of her house, Aronofsky takes us into its beating heart. When her husband’s guests fight and steal and touch her things, her head pangs with paranoia and compulsive feelings of danger. The tension is so tactile in these scenes because we can feel the importance of every thing, every time a chair breaks or a glass falls. I’d have loved to see her painstakingly mull over a table leg or bookshelf but we get the idea from the movie’s best scenes: the ones in which she meticulously prepares a romantic dinner that ends up being eaten by people who invite themselves in, or even when she expresses her love of His work, which we find out he’s already shared with the whole world by the time she sees it. Mother! has an obsession with things. We used to call housewives “homemakers;” Aronofsky makes that literal.
This imagery – of the house’s heart, of the mother’s ringing head – isn’t entirely necessary. It’s Aronofsky laying his message on too thick. After knowing that she thinks of her house as the living testament to her love, we would only need a look from her to know that she’s thinking of its heart. But we see it a half-dozen more times, at varying degrees of decay, and with no way to know which state is final. Aronofsky has a weird obsession with repeating himself; his mind works in stanzas. But this imagery is only the simplest state of his thought process. The real attraction is the horror of the performances.
The trailers for mother! mash together any scene with blood in it to make it look like a home invasion movie. Weirdly enough, it is, but not in the way people expected. Mother's home is invaded by the idea of invasion – that’s why Aronofsky assigns people the names of their mythological figures, rather than real names. He’s working in concepts. The man (Ed Harris) is a harmless intruder, in the way that a bee in your kitchen is. He doesn’t hurt you but he reminds you that you’re not alone. Lawrence is perfect at acting like someone who can’t forget something long enough to accept it; she begins to move through her life like the attendant at an art gallery. When the woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) comes, it gets way worse. This is how we know Aronofsky doesn't assess these people in terms of normal gender studies -- it's not as simple as "man abuses woman." The worst gaze in the movie is a woman’s: she takes mother apart with her eyes. She makes mother lemonade as a favor and it becomes a favor to her to drink it. She talks in that particular way that intrusive people do when they say, “But of course, it’s none of my business” right when their intrusion is getting interesting. They want you to beg them to keep being rude to you. Mother! quickly starts to be about the things people ask of us, particularly when they ask everything, and especially when they act like it’s no big deal.
Mother’s breaking down and she’s trying to get them to leave her life alone; she sees them having sex in her room and the sinking paranoia is more intense than when Danny Torrance sneaks around the hotel in The Shining. The reason is that these aren’t ghosts or demons. Mother is being tormented by people, yes, and something much scarier: by people’s ownership of her emotions. It’s the disconnect with people’s reactions that makes mother! scary, as the houseguests pile up, and mother can’t convince them to stop sitting on the sink and stealing her things; they act out the nightmare that we all have when we scream in our sleep and no sounds come out. It’s what made Rosemary’s Baby so unsettling. With its purely conceptual direction, mother! reconceives the fear of losing a child to be a fear of losing your entire life. What if love, what if our ability to love at all, was that child? Mother’s husband assures her that “things can be replaced.” He enjoys seeing her replace them: that devotion, and not the love itself, is what he wants the most. It’s how love in mother! becomes a religion.
At a certain point, these anxieties, of the kinds of men and women that used to be in frescoes, become something greater. Mother! challenges you, not to think a certain way, but just to consider the questions. Since it’s about love, it eventually becomes about God, whose images will always make half the audience claim that the art went the obvious route. But Aronofsky knows God, or thinks he does; he knows his particular way of loving that’s a lot like a husband who values not what his lover gives to him but the fact that they do. Mother! devolves into a hellscape built of that idea of love, a tirade of worship and togetherness so maddening that you might laugh at it if you could convince yourself to breathe. Mother! becomes a complete argument against the belief that love is how we all owe each other something, or everything: a conversation, a sign of approval, a baby. It might be Aronofsky’s way of fighting his idea of religion, or of protecting his art from becoming the spiritual property of those that don’t understand it. It may be both and that may be the point. He’s an artist clutching his work and proclaiming, “MINE.” He attacks the mainstream to expose it: he is the anti-prophet of the cult of togetherness. Only incidentally does he become a man out to destroy God.
It’s up to you whether you think Aronofsky is a prophet to a belief or only to himself (or even whether those are different). He thinks of himself as a stranger in a strange land; the CinemaScore folks see him as just part of the scenery. But he gets impossible performances out of these figures. Lawrence masters the eyes of someone losing control of her life: she perfectly captures the kind of helplessness of someone responsible for everything bad that happens to her, and yet to blame for none of it. She has a primal, pent-up force that audiences interpreted as indecision. Maybe they were right, but it was mother’s indecision portrayed perfectly, not Lawrence’s. She draws every one of Aronofsky’s frames into the context of how she sees the world – it’s been a while since I’ve seen someone who was more the subject of a film, as works of old art have subjects. Bardem is perfectly cast as a benevolent foreigner who sweeps her up into the belief of his greatness; he was nominated for a Razzie, not because his persona isn’t deep enough, but because Aronofsky’s notion of God isn’t.
Even despite their lordly efforts, you may come away from mother! thinking Pfeiffer stole the show. She waltzes into this movie like a debutante wino, gets way too Freudian for comfort, and says everything to the entire world with the tone that people say, “You’d have to be a mother to understand.” Pfeiffer has never seemed quite young enough to be innocent – she was a praying mantis, even all the way back in Scarface. But she’s finally old enough to make that seem like it’s on purpose. I’m saying that her roles finally deserve her.
Mother! may be an argument against religion by giving it a mother’s perspective, or for the ego of an artist who makes movies like he gives birth to them. It may seek to prove that fighting over what's "ours" is the only thing that’s kept us alive this long. It may just be an exercise in divine self-indulgence, an anxious creator setting boundaries between himself and his audience; he might have put that exclamation point in the title just to remind us that his work has always been a plea. What it isn’t is simple. The fact that it’s become divisive in this particular way – where some claim that it’s brilliant and others terrible, and for the same reasons – isn’t a matter of whether or not we appreciate art. Mainstream audiences will always love the art that loves them; they'll beat the rest to death with “F’s” not because they hate the art but because they hate that it wasn’t made only for their enjoyment (notice the tone of the most negative reviews: always with the most confidence of what the art means). Mother! ultimately comes down to how we love the things that artists make for us, and whether we can handle that not all artists will seek our approval for them. It’s no surprise that mother! upset most people. Aronofsky would tell them they'd have to be an artist to understand.
Image is a screenshot from the film.