Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the film director Darren Aronofsky, in his ongoing mission, to seek out new life and boldly go where no one has gone before.
Having paraphrased a famous phrase, never, ever, in the history of filmmaking – since it began in the late Nineteenth Century – has a director attempted and succeeded in telling a story – a biblical story – of these dimensions.
mother! (2017) as it unfolds is not your usual film about a couple who generously invite a stranger into their house, unwittingly unleashing apocalyptic calamity.
In many stories in many films, people from the outside world come into your home, your house or your life – invited or uninvited – and cause havoc. There has never been a more extreme example of this than in mother!
It’s a theme previously explored in Single White Female (1992), Bad Influence (1990), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), The Cable Guy (1996), Panic Room (2002) and Pacific Heights (1990). They variably are a roommate, a nanny, a colleague, the cable guy, a spouse, an intruder or a tenant. The most insidious is the night manager who signs you in at a motel en-route and stabs you to death (Psycho ). In mother! it is much worse as it is literally the outside world. The unwelcome intruders are half (or most of) the human race
In 1998 I literally rushed to a theater to see the film Pi (1998). I heard it was the first feature of a new director called Darren Aronofsky, shot in black and white, part thriller, part horror. For me, first-time directors produce some of the most amazing cinema. It was almost twenty years ago, and I can't remember what it was even about. What I do remember clear as day right now, is that I rated it ***½, that I thought it was visually beautiful, that I thought it was confused filmmaking and I wondered if the director had a clear understanding of what he set out to achieve, and that I don't really think I got it. But I loved it. This was a director to keep an eye on.
Two years later I saw Requiem for a Dream (2000) and it blew my mind. It was audacious and dangerous and horrific, clearly made by a filmmaking who wants to make films that don't require an A-B-C-Climax-Coda completely understandable plot. What was on display onscreen, however, was phenomenal, and it captured a vision of disjointed reality that I'd only experienced in literature in works like Kafka's Metamorphosis or in Orson Welles's adaptation of Kafka's The Trial (1962). Nightmares are dreams; but the things that go in a person's head when they're not asleep is what Aronofsky was able to put on the screen; and what that was, was like what goes on inside my brain. I rated it ****.
Somehow, I missed The Fountain (2006). The next film he made, The Wrestler (2010), I saw, and I agreed that it was very well made – but a lot less complex, narratively. So was Black Swan (2012). Both of those films were very good in completely different ways. Aronofsky was moving in an interesting direction given the subject matter and telling a story in a typically individual Aronofsky-way. He was also making films which were receiving attention by the Oscars and Golden Globes. The first with two actor nominations and the second with nominations for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing. Then came Noah (2014). His budgets went from $6 million to $13 million to $125 million in three films. While he definitely put his individual stamp on Noah (2014), and it had all of the production values that a $100,000,000 should have, he made a complete hash of telling the story. The story-telling contrivances which hadn't worried me in previous films, which were deliberately dreamlike in scenarios that were always a bit odd or a lot odd, were now just melodramatic and risible.
Nineteen years after viewing Pi (1998), which I was enthusiastic about - which had a promotional tag, "faith in chaos" - I'm back in a theater watching mother! "Seeing is believing" is the tagline. As usual, I haven't read a review, spoken to someone who has seen it, or had any idea of what the public or critic's reactions were like.
It was a little strange at first, then stranger still, then more and more melodramatic, then risible, then less ridiculous but more absurd, then just strange again, like at the beginning. Then the film moves quickly through all of those stages once again, but with five times the pace, and worse outcomes as the same circumstances come around for a second time, but with a thousand times the intensity.
I walk into any film and I try to accept each film on whatever terms it wants to approach me.
As a film starts, and appears to be one kind of film or another, it may then change, and develop into a different kind of film, and it might do that twice, three times, or ten or twenty times, and I try to roll with the punches, and at the end walk away from it and have quite a bit of silence, while I mull it all over.
In fact, the silence at the end of a film is such an important part, that starting in the year 2001 I started to prefer to see films in a cinema by myself rather than with anyone else. The need for pure acceptance of every film I see, on its terms, isn't helped when I'm hearing laughing, or no laughing, or shuffling, or people fidgeting. To accept a film on its own terms I don't want to come out of the film and hear, "That was a thoroughly satisfying movie" or "I'm glad I saw that movie. I didn't like it, but I'm glad I saw it" or "Well, I normally say, 'I'm glad I saw a movie even if I didn't like it, but this film, I wish I hadn't even seen'".
The end credits were rolling for mother!, and I heard the audience walking out, muttering away, when a girl's voice rose above the burble saying,
It took me out of my space, and I was suddenly back in the land of the living, not the land of the living in a celluloid world, and I thought, "She's right. It is." Then I thought, "but what about all the thoughts going through my brain and my attempts to make sense of it as everything that happened, happened?" Yeah, it was pretty dumb. Or was it? I'd been watching the end credits thinking, "That was brilliant. Completely over-the-top, completely audacious, completely original. But strange. I wonder if it's comprehensible? Obviously, it's about God and Jesus and the virgin birth. And death and sin and a sacrifice. but I wonder if it makes any sense?"
Then after the film had finished, a group of people in the back row of the cinema were still chatting away, long after the lights came up. There's a discussion going on. Then I hear, "He was God, right? He said, 'I'm the creator'."
At this point, I'm at the "I need to go home and they're not even looking like leaving" point. I get up from my seat, five rows from the front, and grab my stuff and head out.
"Oh, sorry mate". Then I heard whispered, "I wondered if someone was going to yell out and tell us to shut up. I'm surprised they didn't."
This group, I'd heard in my peripheral audio, make dumb comments throughout. When really extreme things happened, they were relating to the film like it was a silent movie. "What?" "Oh, no." "Really!?"
Somehow, I'd muted the audio from behind me until the film finished, and then the audio behind me came into my consciousness.
As for mother!, the film, it is both stupid and brilliant, depending on your perspective. And, I reckon, in any reasonable assessment, probably a lot of one and a little of the other.
The plot is rather strange, and it kept getting stranger and stranger until the final climax which is truly over the top. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem are a married couple, living in a house which she is fixing up. He's a poet. He's not written anything for a while. One night there's a knock at the door. It's a brilliant doctor who is new in town. He has heard that the couple might have a room he can rent. The wife is appalled that he lets a stranger stay with them. He enjoys the stranger’s company and the poet and the doctor go on long walks together. Before long, the stranger’s wife and two kids turn up, one murders the other, there’s a funeral, and then a wake which the poet allows to happen in his house. This wake goes on for a long time, and a lot of the house is taken over by friends and family who seemingly have no sense of what’s appropriate and what’s not, or even what is right or wrong. Eventually, they destroy part of the house and the wife insist the poet throws them out.
She’s furious with him. They have sex, she gets pregnant overnight, he gets the inspiration to write a new poem, and when he completes it. he shows it to her, and she thinks it’s an amazing work. It’s published and thousands of fans comes to their house to tell the poet how great his poem is. His publisher (and publicist) is thrilled with the response. But the people start acting badly and take over the house and physically treat the wife badly, even though she is pregnant. She has the baby, the baby is killed by the zealots and she retaliates. She calls 911. The police and the army arrive and a battle is fought against the masses. The wife has had enough and throws a match on a barrel of oil and blows up the house. The Poet somehow survives, and cradles his wife in his arms, and the house regenerates, and it starts over again with the same house in need of repairs, and a new wife waking up one morning.
The Actual Story
Mother! Is full of imagery and situations which relate to the Christian Bible, O.T. And N.T. As the two main characters don't have names, I'm going to refer to them as The Creator [or God (Javier Braden)] and Mother (or Jennifer Lawrence).
The Creator is a writer/poet, who hasn't been able to write anything new or anything good for many months or years. His hope and love for Mother gives him hope he can create once again. Mother is fixing their house up while the Creator writes in his study. She can put her hands against the walls and feel the living creations with that world. Is it also a living creation within her womb?
The Creator is married to Mother, who can be seen as a number of characters rolled into one: sometime Mary, sometime Jesus or the Creator’s son (or possibly the mother of God's Son) but Mother and the creator are not currently not sleeping together let alone having sexual intercourse. So, the hope they have for a child are words not actions. Sometimes Mother as Mary seems to be a lot less like Mary and more like Jesus and vice versa.
The house is where God and Mary live. As it's never super-natural, I think it's the Earth. This planet. And on this planet are intelligent beings. Some of them come to the house. The house, which could represent the place on earth where God created Adam and Eve, Eden, as well as later, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Along come Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. Ed Harris comes first. He is Man (his name in the credits). He's heard of the Creator (God) and loves his work (Him in the credits). He's a big fan of one particular work, of which the writer/poet has many copies which the Poet/Creator wrote (presumably about the first seven day). He and God have a lot of good conversations, while Mother looks on, excluded. Mother discovers a photograph of the Creator in Man’s bag. God says he knows that Man (Ed Harris) knows who he is but that he wanted to visit him. Man has told him he is dying through the corrosive effect of not understanding what is dangerous – cigarettes (but, actually, in the Bible, Adam is in a state of grieving because of loneliness). He's a brilliant surgeon but he's alone, and he doesn't realise loneliness is what is killing him and causes his cough.
Then Michelle Pfeiffer arrives. She is a nameless woman. Jennifer Lawrence is perplexed. "Did you know she was married?", she asks Jarvier Bardem (God/Creator).
Poor Jennifer Lawrence. More often than not, she is speechless. She's most frequently an outsider, who is looking on as all these events unfold. Although, who she is, is unclear, we have to accept some things literally. She’s a person, female, the writer names her Mother, and she gives birth to a child. She could also be the Son of God, not yet human, still in the realm of God, who watches, confused, while mankind goes crazy and destroys the world which God has given them. She's also the one (not God, more like a caretaker) who warns Man and Woman not to go into the creator's study. “He doesn't like people to go into his study when he's not there”, she says. Woman sneaks in and Mother orders her out. She’s also the mother of Christ which makes her part The Virgin Mary. She’s also, possibly, just God’s wife, and his housekeeper, and dedicated (wo)man-about-the-house. His DIY fixer-upper who room by room is restoring the couple’s beautiful house.
In a special cradle in his study there's a beautiful piece of glass which represents all that is important to the Creator. It represents the beauty of trust and the precious entity of life and a pure state of mankind’s being.
Ed Harris (Adam) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) sneak in to look at it, and accidentally break it. They're sorry. Terribly sorry. (The beautiful diamond-glass with burning cinders inside is the representation of the fruit in the Garden of Eden.) The Creator collapses to his knees and brings all the pieces of the broken glass which lies on the floor, the pieces of the shattered diamond, together and holds them in his hands, gripped with indescribable pain and sadness. He orders them out of the house. This diamond, this piece of glass with cinders burning in it, is fragile, and he has never allowed anyone to hold it. Only he ever holds it and only a few can look at it and none can touch it, as it represents God's knowledge. When it smashes, they come to realise right and wrong and it ruins their relationship with God. His dramatic reaction of catastrophic grief is a justified response to Sin coming into his perfect world.
Jennifer Lawrence has watched the Creator interact with Adam and Eve without realising he created them. Then after the destruction of the jewel, God boards his study against anyone entering again - which is stopping anyone entering into his knowledge - his study being pure and free of sin - his private space.
Cain and Abel turn up (to Mother's horror) and have an argument over what Man will provide in their inheritance . Here, Aronofsky cleverly mixes up Adam's children, Cain and Abel with Isaac's children, Jacob and Esau, which is to do with their inheritance. Knowingly or not, Aronofsky melds the tale of the two sets of brothers. Cain and Esau don't like the way they're being treated by their father (Adam/Abraham) and make it known. Cain kills Abel, a shepherd, and the blood drips down to the furnace - hell. With this murder, the fiery furnace of hell is introduced.
God goes to the hospital with Abel and holds his hand as he dies, distraught with the first death of something that he has created (as depicted in the Christian Bible). Despite breaking the one rule, stay out of his study, he is kind and generous to Adam and his extended family. Again Javier Bardem's character reacts with grief and he supports Man and Woman. the death of their son is the first death in God's world. Prior to sin entering the world, there was no such thing as death.
Murder has come into the world, and Mother has to clean up the mess. She's often just a housekeeper, who's repairing the walls and rebuilding the world (the house) because of its previous destruction (in God's [Creator/Poet] earlier marriage to another Mother, which brought about the same result - the annihilation of the world), while looking on in disbelief.
The blood from Abel's fatal wound creates a stain where he died, which Jennifer Lawrence scrubs and scrubs to remove, but she can't ever make it clean again. It is the stain of sin. It is so toxic that it eats into and opens up the floorboards, even the walls, and as Jennifer Lawrence scratches around the infirm parts of the building (which represent now, the entire world of which God only has a view - and Mother), she sees a chamber that is next to the furnace (hell) containing drums of oil. A secret room. In some views of death it could be seen as an anti-chamber, a safe-haven, a place between the three worlds: God's world, Hell and the human world.
More and more people visit Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence's house. They come in the guise of people who are sad about the death of the younger son (the Shepherd - Abel) by (the older son) Cain (who tilled the land). One cared for live beings (sheep) and the other, Cain, stripped the goodness from the earth, through raping the soil and taking all the value out of it.
Those who have invaded the house only think of themselves and what they want. They are selfish, licentious, depraved and human. God allows it for a while. There is general disapproval from Mother. And she gives them warnings. Repeatedly. In particular, there’s a sink and draining area, that is unsafe. It’s structurally unsound. People hear the words she says but don’t take it seriously.
At one point in the film one couple bounces up and down on it so many times, in complete defiance, that the wrath of God is unleashed as the pipes burst and a storm of water floods the house (the world).
Mother is furious. She berates the Creator that he can’t even create anything, not even a baby, even when there’s a sexy woman, to whom he’s married, waiting to be impregnated. It infuriates him to the point he decides, vigorously, that he will create a new being. She’s surprised at his anger but allows his enthusiastic solution to the problem. She gives in, against her will. She’s been made to do something that is not a loving union, because she objects, but she embraces it and embraces him (God) and wakes the next morning knowing she is pregnant.
Previously, the wife (Jennifer Lawrence), plastering the walls, had touched the walls of the house she is restoring and felt the lives of living beings alive within the walls (of the world). We see the proof of that in the image of something like a foetus or a heart. Within that house, there is life, because we see it when her hands touch the walls of any given room. There is life in this world. Now, she has a respite after the hordes have left.
Equilibrium has happened. Her revelation that she is conceiving a child brings a period of inspiration for the Creator. He conceives a new poem. His inspiration has produced an extraordinary document, which break his writer’s block, which is only ever understood in three ways:
The Creator (God, architect, all-knowing) has given the world a new document which we never see but which draws thousands and millions. This document, which some want to frame, and which several people fight over, is (conceivably) the new covenant. If it is the new covenant, then it sums up ten laws into the two most essential laws: love God and love your neighbour. Or maybe it is both the Ten Commandments, melded with the New Testament.
The people who arrive at the house (God’s world, Jesus’s world, the real world) are a mixture of people who are horrible, selfish, unsanitary, mean, crazy, nasty, kind, ignorant and awful. There are two types unhealthy expressions of love, misguided and just horrible. There's a Good Samaritan, a Soldier, a Thief, A Healer, a Zealot, and a Herald (Kristin Wiig) (amongst many other types of people, which include Fans, Adulterer, Philanderer, Lingerer, Loiterer, etc.)
Jennifer Lawrence becomes Mary, and Jesus Christ, in this part of the film. She is carrying God’s child, which we instinctively knew from the first few minutes of the film when she touched the walls of the house and experienced the sensation of one child or several children (or all children) in her womb.
While carrying the baby, she is beaten and raped and beaten and ravaged and beaten. The child is taken from her and it is then consumed by the rabble. The newborn baby is now, immediately, a sacrifice, and in the holy communion, is eaten as the body of Jesus (as bread represents the flesh of Jesus), consumed as flesh, and as blood when we drink wine, as part of the ritual of communion – and forgiveness – and renewal.
She calls 911 and unleashes the apocalypse. The house is stormed by the police and soldiers. Presumably it is Armageddon and these are the angels fighting over the world, as Satan does battle with God.
Renewal is a consuming fire in (Aronofsky) and God’s world. All that the fire leaves are ashes. Also, the things that can’t be burned. The Creator/God takes the new piece of glass which signifies God’s heart, his love, trust, knowledge, recreated in Jesus, which lives beyond the death of Jesus. God plucks that jewel of life from an ultimate being which is now just a dead creation. He sets it apart and starts over again.
No matter how much Aronofsky understands the sacrifice of Jesus, and no matter how much the wrath of God is understood, he gives the viewer an interpretation that there is a cycle of repetition. The film begins again, but it’s no different to the last version in any manner. It’s the cycle of life which begins with, “Baby”.
This time when the word, “Baby” is said, it isn’t Jennifer Lawrence who rolls over. Same body, different face. It indicates that God and Christ has humanity in an ever-repeating cycle of peace – hell – peace – hell – new creation – peace – hell – peace – hell – new creation.
Mother is the caretaker. She looks after the basic needs of a building.
Alternate Understanding - Conclusion
Mother is not Mary and not Jesus. She is a disgruntled woman - a wife and a housekeeper - hence the exclamation (!) mark, who thinks that none of what's happening makes any sense.
Therefore this person who lives in the house with God, is God's wife, a (human) being, representing the confusion of mankind. All of these things which happen in his house, come from a God we don’t understand, and this person sees what to her are a set of crazy events unfolding as the Old and New Testament’s basic events playout. It’s inexplicable. Every confused emotional statement is that of mankind not understanding what God is doing in creating the things he has created and allowing it to unwind in the way it unfolds.
In a new life, with a new covenant, the person who lives in the house with God, is similarly confused. When her baby is taken from her and sacrificed and eaten – in portions – the Eucharist – by the people who worship God, the woman – the wife - the mother – hits the restore button, or the control alt delete button, or effectively presses undo.
She – presumably – hopes that this time God’s plan will unfold in a manner which results in a better outcome. But it's only another mother!
An extremely clever, ingeniously-plotted, film.
Downside: not a good telling of the aspect of the Bible which encompasses Christ's story, where he takes the sins of the world upon himself and is raised from the dead by God, having descended into Hell.
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