mother! and the Man in the Mirror — a spoiler-full critique

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
Theatrical Release: 13 Sept. 2017
Watch Date: 29 Dec. 2017


The plot of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, his most recent descent into female torment, follows a bitterly familiar trajectory. A young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mature husband (Javier Bardem) live in an idyllic mansion separated from the rest of society. The husband, a famous poet (known as Him), has been wrought to write anything in years, and his wife (Mother), in her devotion, rebuilds his house, which was destroyed in a fire. She toils away at the house, caring to, listening to its heartbeat in the foundation, when one day visitors begin appearing, and the story gradually explodes from there.

Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the Bible knows what is going on in this film. It hits all the major beats: Man is created, and from his rib a Woman, then they have two sons, one of whom kills the other, the murderous son absconding to live in isolation. The words of the poet spread like wildfire, and he attracts followers, as well as critics. Dissent breaks out, the believers are oppressed, but their savior comes in the form of the poet’s son.

Before mother!, the only Darren Aronofsky film I had seen was Black Swan, which I enjoyed. Both moves focus claustrophobically on female suffering—Black Swan with the protagonist’s mental deterioration, weight loss, and desperation for perfection, mother! with Mother’s desire to be left alone in peace with her husband and baby.

There’s not much good I want to say about this movie. Knowing that the main character was named Mother, then having the first and last spoken words of the film be “baby” showed exactly where the film’s view of women lie. Aronofsky attempts a flawed depiction of the male gaze on female suffering, resulting in an overwrought, deeply flawed and metaphorically inconsistent film.

If nothing else I wanted this film to be technically appealing, and it had its moments in the second half, but not enough to award it a congratulatory adjective like, “stunning.” Throughout the first half of the film, the camera stayed so zoomed-in on Lawrence’s head while she ran circles through her gigantic maze of a mansion that it became borderline nauseating to watch. The pervasive color of the film, which is established early on as Lawrence chooses what shade to stucco the wall (a sort of mustard yellow), was often attractive but rarely contrasted by anything other than black or red. The heavy contrasting shadows, obscuring parts of the frame or Lawrence’s face, started to feel like a dramatic visual gimmick after a while.

The second act of the film proved more technically thrilling, with wild violence and destruction of the house so visceral you do feel it, just as Mother does. Wide shots of bombs going off, people being bagged and shot in the head, disgustingly brutal melee combat—all of it so gory that, while impressive, it is difficult to keep your eyes on the screen.

Truly the best way to describe this movie is exhausting. The allegory is so obvious. I read an Amazon review of the film that called it a, “thinking person’s movie,” which I’m inclined to disagree with. It was a daring attempt at subversion and shock. It made a lot of gambles—one setting, no character names, hell, having an indie band name for a title was an overt statement. The movie advertised subversion, drama, mystery, and horror, and delivered parts of all of those things, save the mystery. If, with a mystery, you’re always wondering what’s coming next, this film asks instead, “What is Aronofsky going to do next?”

The most spectacular attempt at subversion in this film is the perspective. The Creation Tale told not from the perspective of God or man, rather from the perspective of the Earth—the woman—man constantly takes advantage of and deprives. By following Lawrence’s character rather than the poet, the familiar stories are defamiliarized. Particularly in the beginning, when Mother finds the Man keeled over the toilet retching and the poet covers up a bloody gash in the Man’s side, then he suddenly has a wife, the Woman, the next day.

The Woman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, also deserves address. In mother!, the story of Eve eating the apple is translated into the Woman accidentally breaking the poet’s prized crystal. One of the more problematic translations of the film, this telling disregards the presence of the snake which informs Eve that eating the apple will give her knowledge. Following Judith Sargent Murray’s interpretation, Eve was persuaded to eat the apple by Lucifer before he had been banished from heaven, thus he was still an angel. Furthermore, she ate the apple to gain knowledge and understand a deeper sense of self an identity.

The Woman in mother! is taunting, sexualized, and alcoholic. She pries into Mother’s personal life and is depicted as malevolent for being open with her sexuality, contrary to the virginal, white-adorned, pure Mother. The Woman sneaks into the poet’s office (Eden for God’s sake Darren we get it), looks at the shiny diamond, and accidentally breaks it. Once it is shattered and she and the Man are expelled, they have sex. A few minutes later, their sons appear.

The depiction of Eve in mother! exemplifies one of the sexist, problematic translations in this film. In the first act of the film, Aronofsky presents a shallow angel/monster dichotomy à la Gilbert and Gubar. There are non-sexist, even feminist ways, of interpreting the story of original sin. But instead, Aronofsky shows a sexual, malignant Eve who is tempted not by knowledge or self-actualization, but by a shiny jewel. Whatever interpretation of the Original Sin story you subscribe to, there is always a devil, there is always a snake to tempt Eve. There is no external force in mother!. In mother!, the devil is inside her.

While it’s often unclear what, if anything, each act is building to, there are virtually no moments of reprieve, making mother! a trying watch, despite it clocking in at just two hours. Each act had a strong point of sharp, strong storytelling, bookended by utter chaos. In the first act, the fight between the two brothers, resulting in the younger brother’s death, was thrilling and terrifying, watching them try to kill each other with pieces of Mother’s house—pieces of her very being—then her being forced to mop up the blood. The second act was most striking after the baby was born, in what was virtually Mother’s sole moment of agency, when she refused to let Him hold her baby. And, of course, the moment she fell asleep, he stole the baby, and chaos reigned again.

This film is both an allegory as well as the male gaze on feminine suffering. Mother’s suffering is related inextricably to her womanhood, she has almost no motivation other than keeping a home, having a baby, and appeasing her husband in every possible way. Her womanhood empowers her occasionally, but only to the degree of her being a better woman to support Him.

And how she is tormented. Hearing that people were so critical of this film I was determined to watch it, but I almost turned it off when the violence started, and people started callously running into, knocking over, grabbing, hitting, abusing a pregnant woman. Mother bears unbelievable abuse and trauma in the span of a few hours, culminating in the people who have ruined her life, destroyed her house, and exposed her husband, killing and eating her baby. And when Mother finally lashes out against everyone, her husband included, and reduces the house to dust, it was all for naught. The poet survives. A new Mother is created to suit his needs. The cycle repeats, ad infinitum.

Like many other films being criticized in modern Hollywood, mother! is a movie about an older artist finding his inspiration in the form of a supple young woman. This one is just from the perspective of the woman. A Woody Allen character dynamic imposed on the story of God and his Muse. The Creator and His Creation will always be romanticized to a certain extent, even if Mother Earth lashes out and destroys everything. No matter what, the man is eternal, the woman is expendable, replaceable.

What’s possibly the worst part in all this is Javier Bardem’s Him, the deity looming over the story. The poet, the great artist, creates humans because he can’t stand for the life of him to be alone with his wife. She is not enough for him, she will never be enough for him, but the only way for Him to be truly happy is to be revered by masses, causing his wife’s very being to deteriorate. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too. And the movie is critical of him, showing him bathed in fire like the devil, then having him create another Mother to torment for his own amusement over and over again.

But if this film truly hated Him, then it would do more. This film is a carnivalesque destruction of a woman’s sanity, all at the fault of her husband, and his punishment is her death. But her death doesn’t matter because he can create a new Mother. Mother is powerless to harm Him supremely, to do any damage. Her suffering is pointless. The entire movie is pointless.

There are great works of art that make you contemplate the artistic pointlessness of everything, transcending the viewer to a point where pointlessness becomes comforting, where nihilism has become so nihilistic that it has shot back around to being positive. “Everything’s going to end, nothing’s going to change, so it’s fine. I can do whatever I want. I’m free.”

This film is not artistically pointless. It’s monstrously pointless. It’s constraining, destructive, fetishistic. This film says, “This is how it is, and nothing is going to change it.” It’s the Bible for Christ’s sake. This film says, “She is Earth, He is God. She is replaceable, He is eternal. This is how it is, and nothing is going to change it.” No amount of suffering, rage, destruction, or gore is going to make a goddamn difference.

Darren Aronofsky has made a film that literally and figuratively carves a woman open to show that no matter what, God will always prevail, and all other beings are doomed to suffer and die. The man, the poet survives, and suffers only materially. Aronofsky is obviously critical of this poet, but he is not critical enough to dismantle him. He is not critical enough towards monstrosity because of what it yields. He is not critical enough to say that, though maybe the power dynamic should be changed, there is any feasible way it could be changed. He doesn’t hate it enough to do more than grossly satirize it. There is no way to dethrone the artist.

It is possibly the peak of narcissism for an artist to acknowledge injustice, acknowledge the artist’s hand in female suffering, and yet do nothing to solve it.

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