If you don’t want to know what the much-anticipated movie Mother! is about, stop reading here. Then again, Mother! is “about” at least three different and incommensurate types of meaning, so stop whenever you like—you’ll never get there anyway.
Director Darren Aronofsky describes the film as an allegory which follows the relationship between masculinized God and a feminized Earth (played by Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), complete with biblical stories-within-the-story and suggestions that the Earth is not being treated as well as she deserves. That’s the story occurring on the symbolic level. On the literal level, however, the movie is about a bad marriage between a sexist husband and an oppressed wife. The clanging dissonance between these two levels of meaning—the allegorical and the literal—is what makes Mother! such a confused mess of a film.
From the start, Mother! is a married-couple psychodrama taking place in a rural, isolated house against the backdrop of mysterious and supernatural goings on. The walls seem to pulse; there’s a magical crystal, and an unexplained shot of a woman engulfed by flame. The unnamed protagonists, whom I’ll call the Poet (Bardem) and the Mother (Lawrence) after their respective occupations, live in a beautiful home but are experiencing some tensions. She is devoted, he pulls away from her. He has writer’s block, and strongly suggests that it is her fault. She dresses in modern neutrals and works to make their home perfect.
Then one night comes a knock on the door. It’s Ed Harris, a doctor whom they do not know. He smokes inside and has a mysterious wound on his side. Then his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, and she’s heinous. She presses alcohol on the Mother, makes a mess in her perfect kitchen, insults her underwear. The Mother rebuilt this house after it was destroyed by a fire in order to create a perfect haven for the Poet’s talents, but this outsider couple is wreaking havoc upon it. Whenever the Mother tries to ask the Poet for help—to protect her, to protect her home, to protect their privacy—he does not hear her.
Then the intruders’ kids come. The movie breaks down into madness. The Mother’s house is overrun and destroyed by violence. She screams at the intruders to leave but they do not listen. In formal terms, Mother! shifts from domestic psychodrama into a kind of wild fantasy. She has become pregnant earlier in the movie, and ends up giving birth in a house filled with the total opposite of all she strived to create. The crowds that fill her house are obsessed with the Poet and wish only to worship him, to see their baby, to carry the baby away. When the Mother is finally driven beyond the bounds of her tolerance and into insanity, we return to the movie’s beginning. The Poet rips her heart out. Her destruction is just one in a cycle, we see: the Poet is the cycle’s creator, and the cycle needs to happen in order for his work to be done.
Aronofsky claims that the film is a biblical allegory, and there are hints of this throughout. The most obvious clues are coded into the intruders who invade the “paradise” of the home. The doctor is an orthopedic surgeon with a ribcage wound. His wife breaks a crystal on the Poet’s shelf, which she has been forbidden to touch. They exude sex and undisclosed knowledge. Whether or not the wife sprang directly from the doctor’s own rib in a surgical setting is unclear, but it is obvious that she brings inappropriate knowledge into the house and is an Eve figure of temptation. When their sons arrive, they fight each other. The blood from their violence spreads and contaminates the Mother’s perfect floorboards.
The Poet is a God figure. He continually offers “hospitality” to the evil forces invading his home, at the expense of the safety and sanity of his wife. In an interview, Jennifer Lawrence has described how the movie “depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” suggesting that the tension is between the divine spark animating humanity and the needs of the world that was created for them. By the end, the home is wrecked, Mother is destroyed, and fire comes to claim all they had built together.
According to Aronofsky and Lawrence’s statements, the Mother symbolizes paradise, and the Poet symbolizes a kind of God character who ironically facilitates the destruction of it (through climate change and other forces) by creating Man. But whatever type of lesson Aronofsky was trying to tell in exploring these deep and mythic themes, he adds a very serious layer of confusion by using a psychodrama about a marriage wracked by gender inequality as the literal level of the story.
The great flaw in Mother! is structural: Aronofsky uses gender inequality, which is a social problem, as a metaphor for exploring mankind’s place in Nature, which is not—at least, not in the Biblical terms that Aronofsky claims to be working in. The director equates the destruction of paradise by mankind in the Bible with the social position of women, without acknowledging that women’s subjugation is not “naturally occurring” or God-given, but instead the result of social conditions. The symbolic story of the destruction of the Earth and the literal story of a woman suffering under patriarchy do not fit together, and Aronofsky ignores their rather glaring inconsistencies.
But as in all allegorical texts (the Bible itself, for instance), the relationship between the literal and the symbolized strata of the work of art is where its true value lies. And in the creaky interaction of those levels, buried under in a tissue of cinematic reference that burdens the whole of Mother!, the film gains its third dimension of meaning: a postmodern movie about movies in which any decisive ethical critique about gender or environmentalism is lost, whirling down into the void like so many damned souls.
The concepts animating Mother! are layered under cinematic references that come so thick and fast as to blur the vision. Aronofsky’s movie strongly suggests that the Mother only exists in the imagination of the Poet. As a figment of a man’s imagination, the Mother’s most important forebear is Hari of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), the dead wife who reappears to her husband in space. In that movie, Hari describes the experience of being nothing more than a man’s vision. She cannot picture her face when she shuts her eyes. That film presents life under the weight of male fantasy to be a hollow and maddening existence. Mother! also evokes Haneke: the invading family of visitors is so strongly reminiscent of the Funny Games villains that I couldn’t help but wait for the shotgun to come out. Jennifer Lawrence’s blonde and domestic derangement could have walked straight out of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), while the fear of supernatural pregnancy layers on Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The isolated house calls to mind psychodrama duets like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) or Persona (also 1966).
The effect of all this referential layering is to add another type of meaning to Mother!. It reads as a Biblical allegory, and as a gender-critiquing psychodrama, but also as a sort of meditation on every movie about those subjects that has gone before. And if a movie aims to meld time, space, history, and gender into one tour de force consideration, I do think it ought to be a little more original.
None of this is to say that Mother! isn’t an entertaining movie: it just loses all the emotional velocity propelling it along once the marriage drama descends into maximalist chaos. That chaos is well produced, and Lawrence does a very solid job holding together the two conceptual worlds that Aronofsky has conjured in her performance. But in the end the literal and symbolic levels of this ambitious allegory do not complement one another. It’s a real widening gyre of a movie, set adrift by the vicissitudes of both theological and cinematic history, with no human center to hold it down.