The first rule of seeing mother! is: You do not read about mother!. The second rule of seeing mother! is: YOU DO NOT READ ABOUT MOTHER!
Which makes this review extremely difficult to write, because I so badly want to discuss everything without spoiling anything. Darren Aronofsky has made an extremely ambitious film that dares to examine life’s biggest questions about God and humanity, and actually manages pull it off, thanks to his rare ability to create both technically and instinctually. Mother! is a testament to the impact a story can have when it marries the particular and the abstract.
The premise is vague and not altogether unfamiliar: a newly married couple live together in a beautiful but isolated country home; the smitten wife (Jennifer Lawrence) spends her time painstakingly restoring the house while her much older poet husband (Javier Bardem) struggles with writer’s block. There’s tension beneath of the surface of their relationship, but nothing is truly amiss until two strangers arrive, first a man (Ed Harris) claiming to be in need of a room, and then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who admits he’s actually just an obsessive fan. Their intrusion quickly turns invasive—she asks prying questions about their marriage and sex life; he smokes indoors and snoops in their private rooms. It’s a classic setup for a psychological domestic thriller, except that Aronofsky has something much grander in mind. Before the credits roll, the couple’s world and home will have literally and figuratively been ripped apart. (If Terrence Malick had a younger, darker, filmmaking brother, Aronofsky would be it.)
To say that mother! has strong religious themes is to state the obvious, but to reduce it to mere biblical allegory is a gross over-simplification. It’s more accurate to say that Aronofsky uses familiar Judeo-Christian characters and relationships as both a framework to deepen his exploration and as an invitation for us to join in the encounter. Fascinatingly, our guide through this journey is the titular mother herself. The camera follows and almost clings to her; we rarely see what she cannot. It glances around corners and glimpses through partially open doors, limited, but always attentive and observational. Though it’s her husband who is the artist, she’s not without her own creativity. Hers is the work we can actually see: while he goes on walks for inspiration and restlessly paces his office, she puts radical care into the creation of their home. She tests different paint colors on the walls and then leans in, seemingly to listen for their approval. She cooks and bakes and cleans and restores, in a constant state of preparation for their domestic lives. (The brilliant sound mixing throughout is hugely responsible for helping to create the feeling of her oneness with the house…we hear every groan of the walls, every drip of the faucet, every clink of glass and footfall on the floor, as if they’re the sounds of her own organs working.)
Bardem, as her husband, is benevolent but remote, never quite giving her a direct answer and often dismissive of her expressed concerns or questions. She turns her back only to find him suddenly gone from the room; she rolls over in bed to find his side empty and the door open, as if she’s always just barely missed him. He adores her as his nurturing wife, but not as his equal. I’ll admit, when I first heard that Lawrence was cast I thought it was a case of pandering; what better way to get mainstream audiences to see an artsy, high-concept film than to cast one of Hollywood’s most accessible and bankable actresses? But both her and Bardem are phenomenal, and I can think of few other actors who could’ve matched the other’s strength.
For much of the film, Lawrence’s character is restless and uncertain, but her timidity never feels passive. She’s like a set trap, still but charged with a dangerous potential energy, ready to be sprung at any moment if the occasion sets her off. Her face carries a constant look of fear and need and suspicion, but also a love so fierce that it’s difficult to watch; anything that intense has the power to destroy. (In an interview with Aronofsky, she admits she was nervous to show such vulnerability. Lawrence, who’s known for playing action heroine Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, and various brazen firecrackers in a number of David O. Russell films, says “I’ve never played a character that’s been forced to be on her back foot.” She proves here that she’s a force on any foot.) Conversely, Bardem’s crinkly eyes and goofy smile always feel just a second away from disappearing into an expression of cold rage. Collectively, the cast’s performances ground characters that might have been mere archetypes in the hands of actors less adept.
Harris and Pfeiffer are equally excellent, but contrastingly so. Both are big name stars no longer in their heyday, and their inclusion in the cast (instead of more currently “relevant” actors) augments the feeling that their characters are an intrusion (a later appearance by Kristen Wiig has the same shocking effect). They’re loud and obnoxious and grotesquely worldly; they smoke and fuck and break things, undoing all of Lawrence’s carefully created sense of order. Like Natalie Portman’s dual character in Black Swan, Pfeiffer is the Odile to Lawrence’s Odette. She’s sexual where Lawrence is sensual, clad tightly in black while Lawrence is clothed loosely in white, her face heavily made up and hair styled while Lawrence’s face is bare and her hair unbound. The allusions to Eve/Mary are hard to miss, though in this version, it seems to be Eve who is undoing the work of Mary. (In Catholic tradition, Mary is called the “New Eve” and Christ the “New Adam.” In the Genesis account of creation, Eve is created from the bones of Adam and leads them both into sin by eating the forbidden fruit; later, Jesus is born from the flesh of Mary and brings about the salvation of the world through his death on the cross).
It’s weird to hear myself say this, but I find myself fighting the urge to invoke feminism at this point. Controversial as this may sound, and any dismissiveness unintentional, but feminism is not the right word for what Aronofsky is trying to examine. It’s a part of it—not since Mary Szybist’s National Book Award winner Incarnadine have I felt so known as a woman—but to say mother! is about gender would be like saying Moonlight was about homosexuality. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s limiting.
Aronofsky not only posits a lot of fascinating (and difficult) questions, but gives us some serious material for deeply contemplating them. There’s the poignant fears that arise if your partner is a great artist— “What if he associates his failures with me? What if I’m responsible for his stagnation? What if he holds me responsible? What if he’s inspired by something (or someone) else?” And also the resentment of that—“What if I’m always the muse, never the creator? What if he always belongs more to his audience, to his ‘people’, than to me?” And the fear that “You’ll give and you’ll give and you’ll give” and it will never be enough, that it will not only go unappreciated but even unnoticed. All that, compounded by the the risk that accompanies any occasion when you love something more than yourself….at one point, Pfeiffer’s character says to Lawrence’s, “Wow, you really do love him…God help you.” She’s envious and piteous at the same time. But Aronofsky also understands fear—that it’s both abstract and specific, the fear that not only could someone destroy an idea or a dream or a lifestyle, but that they could steal the very bread from your refrigerator or the earrings you left on your nightstand (or the child from your arms). Furthermore, how do you continue to love a man (or a god) who allows this destruction, who not only asks you to forgive those responsible, but then goes so far as to ask you to forgive him for demanding so much?
Despite the fact that mother! was written and directed by a man, and the fact that the man (arguably) gets the last word in, I was—for lack of a less buzz-wordy term—empowered by what I saw. Not only does Aronofsky recognize that this “mother!” (or “woman!”, as I keep accidentally calling her) is tasked with the most difficult of all human undertakings, but that that she’s up for the challenge, even knowing that it might leave her ravaged, depleted, heartbroken, or forgotten. She shies neither from suffering nor sacrifice, and both are indications not of her weakness, but of her strength.
I’m reminded of a poem, written by the previously mentioned poet Mary Szybist:
see how bravely she turns, how exactly true to the turning,
& in the turning
most herself, as she arranges herself for the exit
withholding nothing, unraveling
the light in her hair as her face
her bright, unapproachable face
says only that
whatever the next scene is,
she will fill it.
For as obfuscating as the trailer is and as simple as the plot sounds, Aronofsky—unlike many equally ambitious directors—doesn’t allow himself the luxury of an ambiguous conclusion. Rather, he stares bravely into the face of all of his biggest questions, marching behind this “mother!” into the flames after them, together demanding they give up some truth. Whether or not we’re brave enough to follow them is up to us.-Rachel Woldum