Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Mother, May I?

Here’s my husband’s succinct review of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Mother!: “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” Bernie knew he was buying tickets for a horror flick. But his reaction to its grim tone and outrageously grotesque ending was so strong that, on the morning after we checked it out at our favorite multiplex, I heard him warning others away. He simply couldn’t believe this was the same movie about which critics were raving.  

And what did I personally think?  I’m not squeamish when it comes to movie mayhem, but suffice it to say that sitting through Mother! was not what you’d call fun. In fact, I’d classify it as an ordeal, especially for someone who takes pride in his or her surroundings. (This is definitely a story in which, to borrow Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, hell is other people.) Still, I’m not at all sorry we made that trip to the movies. I loved the fact that, once the closing credits ended I went out into the lobby and saw small clutches of moviegoers earnestly discussing what they’d just seen. At too many screenings these days, the audience simply shrugs off whatever it has experienced and goes on to the next amusement that beckons. Mother!, by contrast, makes an impact. 

As for that grotesque ending, it bothered me much less than it did my literal-minded husband. I apologize for stereotyping, but he’s an engineer, which may be why he’s a pragmatic guy, one who takes things at face value. I, on the other hand, am a perennial English major, always in search of elusive meaning. And that’s why, midway through the film, I developed a hunch that what seemed like a deeply psychological story about an unraveling marriage and an unraveling mind was in fact meant to be read symbolically. The clues were there: this story had evolved into something in which conventional realism was beside the point. Mother!, I surmised, was less a case study than a good old-fashioned allegory.  

Needless to say, it’s an allegory of a highly disturbing sort. But the critics (as well as my friends on Facebook) are having a field day trying to ferret out what it all means. You start off seeing Jennifer Lawrence’s gentle, passive wife-character as someone going nuts while her poet-husband (Javier Bardem) stands by and encourages the insanity. Then it takes a major mental shift on the viewer’s part to see the two of them less as people than as the embodiment of major concepts, of the type that show up in medieval morality plays. (For all you English majors out there, try remembering back to the 15th century’s Everyman, in which actors took on non-human roles like Wealth and Good Deeds.)  

The movie critics who’ve been weighing in don’t all parse the allegory the same way. I’ve spotted interpretations that are distinctly theological, as well as others that focus on environmental concerns. Given the elasticity of Aronofsky’s story, both views are plausible, and the director’s own statements seem to imply that these interpretations are on the right track. But I confess that my first thoughts about the meaning of the central couple’s relationship were a bit more human and personal. I initially read Mother! as a parable of fame, in which the spouse with a clamorous public following forgets about the value of his private life. His wife may be his goddess and his muse, but it’s still all too easy to forget about her needs. And, of course, the needs of those she spawns.

But I’ve probably already said too much.


  1. I'm impressed that your husband hated it that much! But I'm not going to go see it!

  2. Hilary, I would definitely suggest that you stay away.

  3. I'm close to your reading of the film. And I loved it. MOTHER does is make very sharp a delineation that most films won't go near, which is that every viewer of any film always brings their own thoughts and experiences to that movie when they watch it. Whether you understand this or not doesn't matter - you are doing it. No two people see the same film in the same way. MOTHER understands this and wants to coax you into viewing this movie in your own personal way so you will read into it what you see there. That means that every view of the film is valid - even if I find the haters amusing as can be!

    The film that I saw was an allegory about the destructive nature of the creative impulse. How the desire for an artist to create something of transcendent beauty that can be absorbed and enjoyed by a wide audience has the danger built into it intrinsically that it can be misused for Destruction instead of Construction. And the author/poet/creator of these thoughts is both horrified and thrilled by the effect of his creation upon the world around him. The approbation that he gains, the notoriety that he gains, the love that he gains from this broad audience of people who appreciate his work is more important to him than the things that make his creative life possible. That he uses the irreplaceable love in his own life to be able to create the wonderful, touching, beautiful piece of art that inspired all of this attention for himself is unimportant. Or it is just less important than the thrill of being deified by the people who love what he created.

  4. I love this, Rod. Well stated and (clearly) deeply felt. I hope you will drop by Beverly in Movieland again soon.