Minor spoilers for mother! ahead.
After the rage-inducing finale of Twin Peaks: The Return earlier this month, I found myself considering the possibility that I might just no longer enjoy weird, artsy entertainment the way that I used to. As if I needed to test this idea, Darren Aronosfky’s mother! came out in theaters almost two weeks later.
It’s no secret that mother! has been thoroughly polarizing for viewers, so much so that it came to be tastelessly incorporated into the film’s advertising. Critics seem to adore it, but the average moviegoer did not react so warmly, and I can see why: despite being a fairly straightforward sequence of events, it feels like the world in which they happen operates on a very different logic than our own, to the point that the watching experience can be extraordinarily frustrating.
That said, my hypothesis that I can no longer enjoy artsy nonsense is apparently false; despite the fact that I hated literally every single thing that happened onscreen, mother! is a darn fine film, to the point that I’m even considering paying money to watch it a second time.
On its face, mother! is an introvert’s worst nightmare: Jennifer Lawrence’s husband Javier Bardem (both of their characters are unnamed until the film’s credits, in which they are called “Mother” and “Him” for reasons that eventually become apparent) is continually unable to say no to unexpected guests who keep showing up at their home and refusing to leave.
The best thing this film does is put you in Mother’s headspace: she is both anxious and irritated towards her unwanted guests and their lack of respect for her and her home, and the abundance of close-up shots and minor jump-scares do a fantastic job of telegraphing this to the audience. Every new arrival intensifies the overall feeling of claustrophobia one feels when their home is full of people they have no desire to be around, and I can’t imagine tolerating such rude people with as much grace as she manages.
At the heart (no pun intended, for those of you that have seen it already) of the issues people seem to have with mother! is the question of what it all means. A lot about the film is surreal, almost dreamlike, and the story is clearly allegorical. What, then, is mother! an allegory for?
If you asked writer/director Darren Aronofsky or star Jennifer Lawrence, the film is obviously Biblical: Mother is Mother Earth, Him is God, the first houseguest and his wife (played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) are Adam and Eve, the house is the Garden of Eden, and so on. Aronofsky claims he wanted to make a movie about the destruction of Mother Earth from Mother Earth’s point of view; an environmental cautionary tale about humanity’s role in the destruction of the planet we call home. The Biblical parallels are fairly obvious, especially towards the end, and I can certainly see the intended ideas about climate change, but I have to disagree with the notion that that is what the film is truly about. Rather than making a film about how little we respect Mother Earth, I think Aronofsky has made an even better film than he realized: one about how little we respect women, period.
Throughout mother!, Mother’s words and feelings are consistently dismissed by other characters, most of all by Him. Although she is patient and generous with her guests, they are unceasingly boorish and intrusive; any time she brings this up to Him and begs him to tell them to go, he ignores her complaints and acts as though she is being ridiculous or cruel. Even as they tear apart the gorgeous house that Mother has spent untold hours painstakingly restoring, Him continually refuses to tell them to leave, to the point of actively enabling their awful behavior. Eventually, he reveals that he doesn’t want them to leave, because they are fans of his work, and he enjoys their dedication to him. Him forces Mother to endure unfathomable pain and torment because in actuality, he cares far more about their attention than he does the wellbeing of his long-suffering wife.
Him’s treatment of Mother is uncomfortably familiar for women who have dated narcissistic, gaslighting artist-types. Mother is Him’s muse, and by the end of the film, he has drained her of everything she had in pursuit of feeling as though his work is truly being appreciated. The similarities between Him and Mother’s relationship and the real-life one between Aronofsky and Lawrence—the large age gap, the use of her pain to further his artistic vision—put the film in an uncomfortable light; Aronofsky purports that such an interpretation of the film is incorrect, but it’s difficult not to read that into it. Regardless, this film does a masterful job of illustrating how little women’s complaints are often listened to, and how flagrantly they can be brushed to the side.
Whether you love it or you hate it, mother! is a film you won’t be able to stop thinking about long after you’ve finished watching, and it will undoubtedly going to go down as a genre-defying classic along with the rest of Aronofsky’s oeuvre—with the exception of Noah, which I’m definitely not still bitter about three years later.