I wanna make a Paradise: mother!

mother! (2017)

Darren Aronofsky creates a brilliant ecological metaphor on Christianity that could only divide its audience, fascinating some while enraging others

mother


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Dar­ren Aronof­sky. Star­ring Jen­nifer Lawrence, Javier Bar­dem, Ed Har­ris, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Domh­nall Glee­son, Bri­an Glee­son, Kris­ten Wiig, Jo­van Ade­po, Stephen McHat­tie and Lau­rence Leboeuf.

One of the things I love about Cin­e­ma is its end­less ca­pac­i­ty to pro­voke us. Just take a look at Dar­ren Aronofsky’s films, for ex­am­ple, and you will find some fas­ci­nat­ing sym­bol­ism, evoca­tive im­ages and philo­soph­i­cal ideas in works as dis­tinct as The Foun­tain (2006), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014). This time, with moth­er!, Aronof­sky cre­ates a stir­ring eco­log­i­cal al­le­go­ry that seems to scream in ab­solute des­per­a­tion as it begs us – hu­mans – to stop act­ing like mad­men bent on mind­less de­struc­tion. It is a film that clear­ly wants to be the op­po­site of an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence, which is why there will be so many peo­ple hat­ing it and fail­ing to get be­neath its sur­face – like with the bril­liant but crim­i­nal­ly un­der­rat­ed Noah.

Au­da­cious right from the first scene, moth­er! (with a low­er-case m) be­gins with the strik­ing sight of a woman en­gulfed in flames – no­tice the tear that falls from her eye – be­fore we see “Him” (Javier Bar­dem) use a crys­tal to turn a burnt-out house into com­plete­ly ren­o­vat­ed. Then “moth­er” (Jen­nifer Lawrence) ma­te­ri­al­izes in a bed and calls out for Him, her hus­band. Him is an au­thor suf­fer­ing from writer’s block while Moth­er, who looks much younger, is work­ing to make a per­fect home for their tran­quil ex­is­tence. But it doesn’t take long for things to change when two strangers, “man” (Ed Har­ris) and lat­er his wife “woman” (Michelle Pfeif­fer), ar­rive at their house fol­lowed soon by a horde of oth­er un­in­vit­ed guests.

 

mother wakes up

 

Now, if I write “Him” (with a cap­i­tal H), “moth­er,” “man” and “woman,” it is be­cause this is how these char­ac­ters are re­ferred to in the end cred­its. In fact, no one is ever called by name in the en­tire film, which is only one in­di­ca­tion (among many) of the film’s al­le­gor­i­cal am­bi­tions. The char­ac­ters, as we soon re­al­ize, are ar­che­types – or sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of ideas that are im­preg­nat­ed in the col­lec­tive un­con­scious of our Chris­tian­i­ty-based West­ern cul­ture. What Aronof­sky wants is to cre­ate a strong­ly un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence, forc­ing us view­ers to share Mother’s grow­ing stu­pe­fac­tion and feel­ing of vi­o­la­tion as in­trud­ers in­vade her house with­out any re­spect for her per­son­al space or her­self as a woman.

In or­der to pro­voke this kind of emo­tion­al re­sponse in us, Aronof­sky uses a ner­vous steadicam that nev­er leaves Jen­nifer Lawrence’s side, film­ing her face in ex­treme close-ups and the oth­er ac­tors a bit far­ther away. This way, he keeps us in her shoes the en­tire time and in a con­stant state of ap­pre­hen­sion, sur­pris­ing us here and there with a few bumps in the dark al­most like in a hor­ror film. We be­gin to feel that not even her hus­band can be trust­ed, which is re­in­forced by the fact that he wears black the first time we see him. Adding to the mys­tery and a few sur­re­al touch­es is a high-pitched whistling sound that is heard every time Moth­er feels sick be­fore drink­ing a strange yel­low liq­uid to calm her stom­ach.

 

extreme close-up

 

The in­tel­li­gent di­a­logue, on the oth­er hand, con­veys a lot be­tween the lines, like when Moth­er asks Him if Man is “bet­ter” (not only as in feel­ing bet­ter but as in be­ing bet­ter than her), or when Woman (played by a mag­net­ic Michelle Pfeif­fer) re­as­sures Moth­er that “ob­vi­ous­ly” her hus­band “still” loves her. Iso­lat­ed in her own house, Moth­er is, like I said, a sym­bol, which Lawrence em­braces with full in­ten­si­ty while Bar­dem finds a per­fect note of am­bi­gu­i­ty for his char­ac­ter. With all this in mind, it is more than nec­es­sary now to an­a­lyze in de­tails what moth­er! wants to say and how it does it, so the next para­graphs con­tain spoil­ers.

 

Creation of Eve

 

All over moth­er!, Aronof­sky makes dozens of bib­li­cal ref­er­ences. The first “in­trud­er,” Man, is sick and has a fresh wound on his back that clear­ly iden­ti­fies him with the bib­li­cal first man Adam. Him tries to hide it so that Moth­er won’t find out that Woman – or Eve, made from Adam’s rib – is also com­ing. Woman, who is de­pict­ed as a vul­gar crea­ture full of vices and sex­u­al de­sire, ar­rives right af­ter and lat­er tempts her hus­band to go with her into their host’s of­fice and have a peek at the crys­tal – which, like the Tree of Life, is a source of di­vine cre­ation. This leads to Him ex­pelling the cou­ple with a fin­ger point­ed to the room’s door just like God does to Adam and Eve, throw­ing them out of the Gar­den of Eden when the two eat from the for­bid­den fruit.

 

God admonishes Adam and Eve

 

Then comes the blood, when the couple’s sons ar­rive and “el­dest son,” that is, Cain (Domh­nall Glee­son) kills “younger broth­er,” or Abel, (Bri­an Glee­son), trig­ger­ing a chain of events that will lead all to chaos. The blood eats through the floor like acid, re­veal­ing a se­cret door in the cel­lar that Moth­er didn’t even know ex­ist­ed. Framed with blood, it is a lit­er­al door to de­struc­tion. It doesn’t mat­ter how she tries to cov­er the hole on the floor and makes a baby’s room in the same cham­ber af­ter find­ing out she is preg­nant, soon the blood resur­faces, stain­ing the car­pet when peo­ple re­turn to dis­turb her peace. All these el­e­ments are metaphor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the birth of hu­man vi­o­lence in the world, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing what should be a nur­tur­ing home.

And that is what Moth­er is sup­posed to be af­ter all, the fe­male per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of na­ture – Gaia, Ter­ra, Moth­er Earth or moth­er god­dess. Meek, pas­sive and con­fused, she begs every­one to stop de­stroy­ing her home but they don’t care. No one re­spects her. They thank their host (sin­gu­lar) and com­plain that she should “put on some­thing de­cent” for the wake. Some men overt­ly in­sult her with sex­ist lines that end up cre­at­ing an in­ter­est­ing par­al­lel be­tween abuse of na­ture and misog­y­ny. It is not by chance, ac­tu­al­ly, that the film’s ti­tle is writ­ten with a low­er-case m, since this also il­lus­trates how small we think of Earth and the dis­pro­por­tion­al im­por­tance that peo­ple give to God, whose com­fort they des­per­ate­ly seek in grief.

 

Almighty God the Father

 

God is de­pict­ed ex­act­ly like in the Old Tes­ta­ment: ab­sent when you need him (every time Moth­er turns to Him he is gone); self­ish (not car­ing at all about her tor­ment); and tremen­dous­ly nar­cis­sis­tic, with a huge de­sire to be loved and ad­mired. In one scene, Moth­er looks up and sees Him, almighty, framed in a very low an­gle and with light over his head. But more beau­ti­ful is how he en­joys the fact that peo­ple read his work in dif­fer­ent ways – and so, when all war breaks out and they start killing each oth­er, noth­ing is more nat­ur­al af­ter all than his pub­lish­er, or “her­ald” (Kris­ten Wiig), be­ing the first to or­der Mother’s death, rep­re­sent­ing those who in­ter­pret the scrip­tures the way they want and use them as weapons of mur­der and de­struc­tion.

Re­li­gious cults quick­ly emerge in dif­fer­ent rooms of wor­ship, as well as fences that sep­a­rate and iso­late peo­ple – a fit­ting nod to Don­ald Trump and his bor­der wall. But Him doesn’t want the in­trud­ers to leave; he wants to of­fer his new-born son to them. They are wait­ing, and when the baby is fi­nal­ly tak­en away from Mother’s bo­som, it is killed by the mob and the in­sane fa­ther de­cides to for­give. Now, isn’t this ex­act­ly what the God of the New Tes­ta­ment does when his son Je­sus Christ is mur­dered? A high priest says that the child’s death doesn’t mat­ter, for “his voice can be heard,” so I guess the de­vour­ing of the baby’s flesh shouldn’t be that shock­ing for all the faith­ful who con­sume the sacra­men­tal bread and wine in the Catholic Mass, right?

 

Holy Eucharist

 

But if any­one is still un­cer­tain about the film’s in­tend­ed mes­sage, all doubts should dis­ap­pear in the end when Moth­er blows up the house. Un­scathed by the fire, Him car­ries Mother’s burnt body and she asks him “what are you?,” to which he an­swers: “Me? I am I. You? You are home.” That is what she is, home, and the heart she felt beat­ing when she placed her hands on the wall was her own heart, black­en­ing and rot­ting as peo­ple de­stroyed the love that Earth rep­re­sents in its ca­pac­i­ty to gen­er­ate life. But Him, or God, can­not recre­ate Par­adise with­out love, so he needs to rape Moth­er one last time by tear­ing her heart out of her chest with his bare hands and us­ing what is left of it to make a new crys­tal and start this sick cy­cle all over again.

In this scene, if you pay at­ten­tion, you can see the glow­ing em­bers in the wood form­ing red and blue cross­es be­hind them in the back. Al­though ig­nored and dis­re­spect­ed by man and re­li­gion, Na­ture is what keeps the world alive and peo­ple are re­lent­less­ly dev­as­tat­ing it, now at a much greater pace than ever be­fore. When Moth­er screams hys­ter­i­cal­ly and starts to stab peo­ple with a bro­ken glass at a cer­tain point, it is like the hur­ri­canes and earth­quakes that come up with­out warn­ing and make us curse the plan­et for what we do to it, rap­ing it in­ces­sant­ly. As stat­ed in the song that plays in the end, it is “the end of the world if you don’t love” your world any­more. So if Na­ture screams at the top of her lungs, per­haps we should lis­ten.

Oc­to­ber 5, 2017


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