A Look at mother!
Disclaimer: Contains spoilers.
The reactions to “mother!” have been extreme. Some of the viewer dissatisfaction may come from the trailer; by cutting together most of the tension and screams in the film it sets up the expectation that we are about to watch a horror movie — something similar to “Rosemary’s Baby”. The film that we end up watching, while violent, is far from what is conventionally described as horror. Understanding other viewers’ strong reaction has more to do with their interpretation of the film. Because the film is allegorical, it does lend itself to different interpretations, but it is important to understand what Aronofsky intended.
Aronofsky creates an allegory about climate change by using biblical figures and references. None of the characters are named, but here’s what each represents: Javier Bardem represents God, Jennifer Lawrence — Mother Earth, Ed Harris — Adam, Michelle Pfeiffer — Eve, and every other person that enters represents the human race. As each human enter’s earth, the house that Lawrence has brought to life after being burnt, they slowly destroy it. Aronofsky does create a believable story world, but his allegory isn’t air tight and his cultural upbringing as a modern westerner comes through in the way that he portrays his characters.
From the opening scene, Aronofsky portrays Lawrence as purely feminine. The film opens with the face of a girl being burned. She’s not Lawrence, that’s all we know, and as quickly as she’s shown to us she is forgotten. We then see a dewy-faced Jennifer Lawrence waking up to an empty bed, “Baby?” She gets up and wanders around the house looking for her husband garbed in a sheer nightgown. She walks outside and stands in the middle of the doorway with a regal posture, the camera in the hallway behind her, and we see her feminine body silhouetted in her gown. She is the archetypal idea of western femininity, both visually and in personality.
That’s as far away as we get from Lawrence. The rest of the film is either a close up of her, an over the shoulder, or her point of view. And so, as the violence starts and the film descends into chaos we are with Lawrence every step of the way. It’s the subjective gaze of a woman, and we as the audience are shown the world only through her. It’s exciting. At one point in the film, Lawrence is told to dress decently. The camera, from her point of view, then looks down at her outfit and we see her cleavage the same way all women do when they suddenly become self-conscious of their body.
The film, without knowing it, portrays the small transgressions that women face just for participating in a certain idea of femininity. Their first guest, Ed Harris, slowly occupies their house. Followed by his wife, Michelle Pfieffer, and then their two sons. Bardem invites them to stay without the consent of Lawrence — right in front of her — so that she has to immediately put on the face of a gracious hostess. The man and woman quickly begin to wear on Lawrence. Harris smokes in the house after being asked not to, Pfieffer gets drunk and enters into an overly personal conversation that Lawrence is clearly not comfortable with. Bardem is more than happy to let them have their way in the house, and so Lawrence becomes the spoil sport. She doesn’t drink alcohol as casually as everyone else, she doesn’t want people in her house, and tries to maintain order and tranquility while everyone around her seems to want the opposite. They are all happy to ignore her, because she cuts such a docile figure in the household. It is as if Lawrence is being punished for participating in a particular idea of femininity. This interpretation of the film was obvious to me, however it’s unclear whether the film’s comments on gender roles are intentional.
Since the Bible is a foundational text in our culture and biblical stories are allegories in themselves, by writing an allegory about an allegory, Aronofsky’s initial intention gets overwhelmed by more interesting readings of the film. It is entirely unclear that the film is about climate change, unless you have heard Aronofsky explain it. Whether the film is enjoyable seems to depend on how audiences view the end. Cinematically, the artistic merit of the film is apparent before the apocalyptic ending. It’s beautiful in the way it builds tension, and mesmerizing in it’s use of the subjective female gaze. To say that the first part is tedious is to misunderstand that violence can be tedious rather than apocalyptic. After building tension throughout the film, we are waiting for a climactic ending and Aronofsky gives it to us. The violent ending is gratuitous and its heavy handed metaphors are cringeworthy. He wants to show you chaos, he wants you to understand the seriousness of the problem we are facing by not listening to mother nature. However necessary the ending may be, Aronofsky drags the chaotic ending on for too long, which takes away from