Warning: I could not effect this interpretation without including a few spoilers. I have tried to minimize them but they are still there. Only read on if you don’t mind that.
It is not very often that films come along that so utterly polarize critics and audience members alike — where people just do not know what to think after seeing a film. This is often accomplished through the use of sensory and narrative ambiguity — elements I’ve written about before especially in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.
The effects of these kinds of films are easy to see: some people really do not want to admit their incapability of grasping any meaning in the film in question (hint: this does not necessarily mean it is not there), so they pan it, bag on it every chance they get, and throw around quintessentially empty adjectives like “pretentious” to describe the work or its creator.
Still others see such polarizing films as strokes of brilliance when they emerge, albeit sometimes over-analyzing the ambiguity. It is, after all, very hard to resist this impetus to ascribe meaning to a piece — and live with the ambiguity as it were.
Darren Aronofsky’s (a director I greatly admire) latest film mother! undoubtedly fits this polarizing adjective very well — with supremely high symbolism at play — and quite the amount of completely unjustified invective against it. Make no mistake: mother! is incredible, high-horror film-making, from its tight-angled claustrophobic cinematography in an otherwise big house as the main stage for such a fevered chamber play, to the utterly surreal narrative itself which tips its cap to surrealist greats like Luis Buñuel (who Aronofsky has acknowledged as an influence).
People who did not understand mother! (wrongly) panned it — I advise not listening to these reviewers, who more often than not are just full of themselves that they have successfully “out-thought” the director — these people delight in sucking the joy and mental stimulation out of cinema for the rest of us. Of course, you also have those people who just could not get over this visceral shock of this film as well — although it well worth attempting to.
Others have ascribed other ideas in symbolism to Mother!. Truly, I believe there is no other way to interpret this film — the rule of symbolism must tilt our view of the film from the very beginning moments at the house in the country. It is essential that we view the entire film as a exercise in symbolism and allegory if we are to get anywhere with it.
I have read reviews who compared the entire experience to the Creation Allegory in Genesis, and still others who saw Jennifer Lawrence’s character as a archetypal embodiment of the “Earth Mother” or “Mother Nature,” assailed ruthlessly by the modern world in all its evils against the environment (symbolized by the people at the house later in the film). Indeed, Aronofsky has lent some credence to this interpretation, yet these interpretations themselves can also be seen as reflective of psychological processes looked at below, specifically the process of individuation.
This psychological influence becomes ever more likely when one adds in the influence of the surrealism of Luis Buñuel (and his film The Exterminating Angel, cited by Aronofsky), even if it was just at the back Aronofsky’s mind when writing the picture. All three perspectives thus reflect each other and intertwine through out the film — a great example being man and woman’s two sons who fight in the house, with one killing the other: emblematic obviously of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, but without a particular parallel in analytic psychology. Or the mysterious yellow liquid that she drinks throughout the film: emblematic likely of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale of a woman going insane titled “The Yellow Wallpaper” (read it free by clicking the title) — yet without a biblical parallel. These facts don’t invalidate either angle but instead show their interplay. Both can be valid at the same time.
Watching the film then, one can certainly see evidence for both the Biblical and Earth Mother perspectives. I am not — however — here to dogmatically drive either one home in isolation, or even the perspective I will advance below. Even with the ideas being cited by Aronofsky (as mentioned above), this is still not the be-all-end-all of critical analysis here, it is but an “influence” as the director himself said — there are, in my view, other ideas that act as further layers of symbolism that reflect the Biblical and Earth Mother ideas themselves.
Thinking of the critical analyses I’ve read on those two perspectives, while watching the film last night, this third perspective illuminated itself to me. What if mother! also plays as an allegory of psychological development that every human being is subjected to?
That is, what if mother! reads as what analytical psychologists (Carl Jung’s school of thought) call the “process of individuation” or the path of life where one matures in any of a number of ways into (hopefully) a functioning adult — and also, by extension, how that journey can be corrupted through mental illness — symbolized by all the people at the house towards the film’s end and played out in the essentially dream-like structure of mother!, thus requiring some further ideas of psychological and dream analysis to thoroughly get all the points be made — these ideas are mentioned below.
This was the lens I chose to examine this most incredible, “fever dream” of a movie through. For, make no mistake, this is mythic story-telling, cloaked in dream logic — thus mother! is a highly symbolic film. This is evidenced by the fact that every character is written as a symbolic figure or archetype and thus not even given a proper name, only a pronoun: Him (played by Javier Bardem, and the only character in the film to have his character name capitalized), she (Jennifer Lawrence), man (Ed Harris), and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
I think its also worthwhile to point out that people in real-life and even in films with a more straight forward plot and narrative arc, simply would not act the way that the characters in mother! do: actions never explained, grossly exaggerated without reason (like Him allowing in a plethora of people to the home that he did not know, just because they enjoy his work as a poet, and despite the fact they are literally destroying the place). This is how people act in dreams and in mythic stories.
Notice also the purposeful obfuscation of time through how the film was written (the narrative itself) and how it was edited — purposefully muddying continuity. These facts can point to how dreams function (where time doesn’t exist) and also mental illness (where time itself is not reckoned correctly).
Indeed, if one does not keep that fact of the film’s symbolism in mind, suspending your disbelief while watching mother! becomes incredibly difficult if not downright impossible. This idea should be extended further as well — to the characters themselves. They will look annoying and one-dimensional if one looks at them as sort of stock, regular characters like any other movie.
They are predictable, flat, and one-dimensional because they are not stock characters, and truthfully they are not even human. mother! has archetypes as the main characters… not human characters invested with a range of human emotions. As such they must be one-dimensional and predictable. They would not be fulfilling their allegorical function if they were more than one-dimensional.
It is a thing of beauty — and quite the accomplishment by Aronofsky as director and writer of the film — to have these seemingly thick symbolic dynamics occurring but never managing to lose the audience or bog us down in the allegory. mother! keeps its pace exceedingly well through all of this.
That all being said, if the characters are archetypes, what are they archetypes for? The Adam / Eve hypothesis is an interesting one — as is the “Earth Mother” hypothesis. Yet, what if both of these weren’t necessarily wrong and as contradictory as they look? Arguably, as the Genesis allegory is a vehicle for the Earth Mother symbolism, it is also a vehicle for psychological symbolism, at the same time, especially a growth process like individuation.
This got me thinking of the house itself (we are purposely given zero location clues to it) as a symbol of one’s mind — an interpretation often used by Jung himself, and the places in the house often associate closely with different areas in the psyche: like the basement being the subconscious, etc.
If we go upon this hypothesis, our characters must be archetypes of parts of the unconscious itself. A big part of this, to me, was when Him was helping the very sick man over the toilet and the wound over his rib was visible. The next day, woman shows up. This is an obvious allusion to Eve being made of Adam’s rib in Genesis 2:22.
We learn next in the film that man did not accidentally find Him and she, in fact he meant to see him before dying of his sickness. If we take that at face value, the Biblical allegory idea would tell us that everyone wants to see god or the divine before dying of the sickness that is life (after all, if you were born, you will die — this could also be viewed as Original Sin in the Biblical symbolism of mother!).
Yet, there is much more to it than just that. If we viewed Him as the mind’s “god” archetype, he could also be viewed as the different, untouched, part of one’s mind — a different stage of psychological development, and also different personality traits that have not yet been accessed in one’s conscious life. As the stereo-typically “male” traits in the psyche, Him could be seen as the animus .
If Him is the animus, what archetype then is she in relation to Him? She is naturally the Sacred Feminine — repository and sum total of all traits and symbolism that are considered “quintessentially feminine”. In the terminology of analytical psychology, she would be the anima, pure and good but not a force you want to bring to wrath.
The mind itself seeks to meet those parts of itself before death, and when that happens, we have a harmony of opposites in self-actualization, through Jung’s process of individuation. Jung called this harmony of opposites in one’s psychology “the alchemical marriage” as the alchemists of old sought to reconcile opposite metals into something more valuable: gold.
The alchemical marriage could be viewed as happening when Him and she finally sleep together and she announces the next morning (although time is rather purposely obfuscated in Aronofsky’s film) that she is pregnant with Him’s child.
Literally, then the alchemical marriage is completed and a new stage of being is born from the union of opposites (Him and she having a child) — this is what happens in psychological development in the process of individuation itself. Thus the child is the fruit of individuation, a higher self on the road of development.
This is where the pessimism of mother! comes in to play. That last half hour shows what happens to that new state of being when it is assailed by one’s demons, neuroses, and all the problems of the world (the dark, violent people at the house — emblematic ultimately of the darker parts of one’s self), which ultimately destroy the new state of being and the house itself through fire — and the general insane state of the narrative itself — this could be read as insanity destroying the mind or the Freudian idea of the Death Drive, Thanatos (named after the Greek daemonic representation of Death), itself doing it. The old is destroyed by flame and Thanatos — or insanity rears its head in seeking to send one’s mind (the house itself) into oblivion.
This, of course, says nothing of what happens to she and Him’s baby — the fruits of individuation. This is a parallel to both the Biblical and the psychological as its fate is a very Crucifixion of Christ-esque allegory (Eucharist and all) but could also been seen as the alchemical marriage literally cannibalized by the forces of mental illness (the people at the house).
I will not stand here and say this is a end-all-be-all interpretation for a film with several thick-as-a-brick layers of symbolism but which never bogs the audience down. It is but another interpretation among many in a film that will ultimately stand the test of time, unparalleled in its artistic power and naked psychological ferocity.
mother! will ultimately go down as a profound piece of metaphysical, mythic, and highly surrealist cinematic insanity with multiple layers of symbolism (told through the vehicle of the Genesis Creation Allegory) but never without the spark that propels a superior film forward. You owe it to yourself to see it. Much like the film itself, you to will wonder if you just woke up from a fever dream.