Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan Continue to prove that they are the premier filmmakers of the 21st century. Dunkirk was most certainly Nolan’s most beautiful pure cinematic work to date. But Mother! is either Aronofsky’s greatest cinematic achievement or his first film failure. If it is a failure then it’s a very good failure. An interesting failure can do more for cinema than a moderate success. And if it is an artistic success it might be one of the greatest films ever made and certainly of the early 21st century.
Right now it’s been several days since I witnessed it and the feeling is still very fresh. I say witnessed because you don’t feel like you’re watching a film. You feel as if you are present at transpiring events. And not in a good way. In a traumatic way. It will be a much more enjoyable film when viewed at home. The images will be more decipherable and the constant shaky cam less disorienting. Of course that means the impact is reduced. But I don’t know if I want to be impacted by this film in that way again. It’s constant use of biblical and religious symbolism is rich and complex. And those who find the film compelling will spend countless hours discussing each and every piece of that symbolism for years to come. Currently the film is underperforming at the box office but it will develop a devoted cult following. Much like Blade Runner.
At this point I’m leaning towards the film being a masterpiece. That might just be the pretentious part of me that wants to be smarter than film critics, who currently are very split on this. But the film’s virtues are hard to deny. It is a completely uncompromising unrelenting artistic vision. Not once does it seem as if Aronofksy does not know exactly what he wanted in each and every shot. His collaboration with the great DP Matthew Libatique continues to produce visual magic. Even by limiting themselves to 16mm the film still looks better than the vast majority of theatrical releases. But shooting on film regardless of the mm lends credibility and beauty that digital lacks.
Mother! is unlike any film I have ever seen. It blends Hitchcock’s perverse voyeuristic dread with Lynch’s surrealism, Gilliam’s mania and Malick’s existentialism effortlessly. It is primarily a horror or dark fantasy film, which are the genres Aronofsky inhabits the most. This work has come from a deep part of his dark soul. A part that has been built upon a remarkably profound fear of religion and especially fanaticism.
Because ultimately this is a film about God’s indifference to his creation. God and humanity are essentially the monsters in this horror epic. Javier Bardem plays the character Him. A successful creative writer and a very self indulgent irresponsible person socially. He is emotionally distant from his wife, Jennifer Lawrence’s character named simply Mother, allowing strangers to live in their home. I did not realize that any of the characters even had names until the credits rolled. And all the names are simply descriptive nouns. Ed Harris is Man, Michelle Pfeiffer is Woman, other characters are named simply by what they do in a scene such as the Adulterer who attempts to “seduce” Mother into taking a walk with him. And truthfully none of these characters are actually characters. They are symbolic place holders. Exactly like the people in Jesus’ parables. One of the characters is even titled Good Samaritan.
Each beat of the “plot” comes from the Bible. It starts with a burned out house in a crispy wasteland. Him goes into his destroyed study and places a crystal into a holder on the shelf. This causes everything to be healed and restored. A new creation but not creatio ex nihilo. Mother is literally generated fully formed in her bed by this crystals’ power. But it’s unclear that Him is in fact supposed to be the god of the Bible until Man and Woman sneak into his office and break the crystal. After this he boards up the study saying this will keep them out for good. This is clearly the garden of Eden. When Mother says they should simply kick the trespassers out Him replies that they have no where else to go. Then the two sons of Man and Woman arrive and a fight ensues. Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school knows where this is headed. The Oldest Son kills the Younger Brother. So the older brother is clearly Cain. But they are arguing over their Father’s inheritance so the parable of the prodigal son is brought in as well.
And this is how the film is either genius or a complete disaster. Every single symbol actually represents multiple things. Mother is Gaia, Israel, and Mary the theotokos. Him is God, a prophet, Joseph, an existential poet, and maleness in general. This sort of nonsense does not work in propositional artforms like novels. But visual arts can simulate reality in more “objective” ways. In reality everything is multiple things. Every woman can potentially be a daughter, mother, sister, and wife. And most women are all four. But a character in a novel can really only be one thing at a time, whatever the author is currently calling that character to. A film is supposed to present a character rather than explaining that character. The viewer’s subjective experience of the character is limited to the viewer’s mind (a form of internal authorship or interpretation) but objectively the character is being presented as all the things that character truly is. This can work extremely well in climatic moments of normal films. When Oskar Schindler cries over the Jews he didn’t save or Captain Quint recounts the sinking of the USS Indianapolis the viewer has access to every piece of what has been revealed so far concerning that character’s humanity and experiences.
So if Mother! succeeds it is because the symbolism is powerful and evocative. If it is a failure the weight of the symbols was too much for the film’s legs to bear. After having seen the film only once I think it succeeds. Mostly due to Lawrence’s performance and Aronofsky’s writing of her performance. Each beat and reaction from Lawrence fits perfectly to the audience’s expectations.
Similar to the filming of his other most artistically divisive film, The Fountain, the director is in a relationship with the female lead. Whatever positive or negative effect that has is in no way obvious but both films portray neglected spouses married to geniuses. Whether Aronofsky sees this consciously doesn’t matter all that much but he clearly relates to this theme. Hopefully his romantic partners do not. Ultimately all his films are about obsession that leads to isolation. And after tackling washed up athletes, drug addicts, scientists, and ballerinas Aronofsky finally turns his focus on divine love. The love of God for his creation winds up being his most terrifying story so far.
A cynical Christian could chok this up to his version of secular Judaism. But I think this film represents a very honest fear. To quote the great philosopher Michael Palin God is “so absolutely huge” (https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=fINh4SsOyBw) that it’s easy to think he would probably be indifferent to us. And this has tended to be what people thought about divine beings. Judaism and Christianity are the exception to this. But man knows he is tiny. And if you are unsure about who or what God is it is easy to think that he must be scary. That he must be indifferent and selfish. That he creates for his own sake and not ours. And if Mother! means anything it is that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I cannot think of anything more horrifying than that.