DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
Mother! is an allegory. Allegories exist for us to extract meaning from. What I take from it will be different than what you take from it. Aranofsky’s allegorical tale is one that is blunt and bombastic, making that extraction of meaning not so much difficult but divisive. It is allegorical marmite.
There is no right or wrong in interpreting a work of art as far as I’m concerned. There’s just you, the art and what it does to you. With Aronofsky’s film, reactions are abundant and intense, but actual interpretation is scarce. Which is a shame as most responses don’t seem to go beyond labelling it dumb or calling Aronofsky a hack. Again, if that’s what it did for you, have at it, I just feel it’s a shame as, despite its bluntness, I think there’s a lot to discover in mother!, making it one of the more interesting films I’ve seen in quite some time.
I’ll start with the tangible bits. The cast in mother! is fine, the performances are perhaps the least remarkable aspect of the film. Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are serviceable, with Harris and Pfeiffer visibly having fun with their roles. I’d say the weakest aspect of the film is Lawrence. It’s not that she gives a bad performance here, but she, much like her character, seems to be completely out of her depth, uncertain and rather distant. This has a lot to do with Aronofsky’s aesthetic choice of keeping the camera extremely close to Lawrence. A choice I understand completely as he intends to serve it as an important function storytelling-wise, but it unfortunately also lays bare Lawrence’s (recent) inability to convey emotional depth. In mother! she touches upon something amazing occasionally, but these moments are sparse as, especially in the first two acts, her performance feels too one-note to truly channel the growing desperation she’s meant to convey.
Aronofky’s writing and direction are obviously the main cause of the divisiveness in people’s reactions. He approaches this film the same way he approaches all his films, with unflinching intensity. Watching his films is always a jarring experience, for some an annoying experience for others (like me) a challenge eager to be accepted. The first two acts are actually rather tame, laying down the narrative and slowly building up to a torrentious final act that is as much in your face as it is on the nose. The first a tremendous showcase of directorial prowess, the second at points a bit too much. For all intents and purposes this is Aronofsky’s most balanced film (I’d say on par with The Wrestler), completely and utterly devoted to its essence and purpose. Some might consider that its main weakness, but I feel it is its main strength, attacking its abstract ideas (and audience as collateral damage) with ballsy gusto.
So what does it all mean? Well, I’ll try to explain as best I can what I took away from it. From its opening shot it’s clear that this will not end well. We see the snippet of an ending before we literally see a new beginning emerge. This clearly implies that whatever is about to unfold before us will be cyclical in nature. In a domestic setting we are presented with a couple that seemingly lives in isolation, a struggling poet and an apparently identity-free female. Their relationship exists in co-dependency, but it soon becomes clear that they are in no way equals. The man dominates the relationship and decides what happens, whereas the woman is left responsibility for the house. Slowly but surely the outside world starts to intrude upon their house, their self-proclaimed paradise. In the guise of visiting strangers, temptations start to find their way into the house, starting a cataclysm towards the destructive end of the cycle.
Aronofsky’s first act is, at surface level, a rather straightforward, almost thriller-like segment. There are, however, some very overt and obvious biblical references that are so out in the open that they are merely motifs to a bigger theme. Creation, fratricide, paradise, apocalypse, we basically get the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve et all, condensed and transported to this domestic setting. Had this been the entire film, it’d have been a huge disappointment as the allusions are anything but subtle. From Adam literally creating Eve from his ribs to the taking of the forbidden fruit, it is clear that Aronofsky is setting up something biblical. Going from that, it is pretty clear that Bardem’s character represents the Christian God. But what of Lawrence’s character? And their relationship? Going by the title the conclusion that Lawrence represents Mother Nature is rather obvious as well. So then the question remains, what does the notion of Mother Nature represent. The obvious choice would be, the earth or the environment. For me, however, it represents something else in this film. The way Aronofsky approaches Lawrence’s character seems to be even more abstract. To me Lawrence represents humanity, humanity in the guise of a birthing mother. I don’t mean the species here, but an abstraction of our species. The attributes humanity is given are caring, imbued with the power of creation, nurturing and self-sacrificing. Aronofsky seems to say that humanity has a certain positive naiveté, that allows it to be a force for good but also susceptible to abuse. And boy does it get abused.
Mother is pure and wants to remain that way. She is completely in touch with her surroundings and feels a great responsibility for it. The continually intruding temptations challenge her purity, she even needs to take medicine to calm her nerves and steady her heart. A heart we physically see corrupted and shrivel, a clear indication of where humanity is headed. I appreciated the fact that humanity (or whatever it may have represented for you) was portrayed as a classical feminine archetype. Taken literally it is the worst view of a female, often perceived through a male gaze. Figuratively, these feminine qualities are a compliment, something to strive after. The way Lawrence portrays mother! At points borders on pantomime, the swooning damsel in distress, and, again, if taken literally that would betray a shallow and one sided view of what femininity entails. But in the allegory it served a function, namely to contrast the other side in this relationship, God.
One could argue that it is rather simplistic to portray God as a man and you’d be right. If taken at face value, but by making God a man and contrasting it sharply with the pure feminine qualities of mother, Aranofsky strongly condemns the domineering and possessive nature of men. And he’s right. This is what we do. Men approach things trying to own them, it’s in our nature no matter what our intentions are. The way God behaves here in his relationship with humanity is no different. He takes without giving. And when he gives, it is because he chooses to, not because his partner needs it. I read this as a rather bold statement about how we treat faith and religion these days. The relationship between God and humanity is mutually destructive and cyclical, God cannot stop taking and humanity cannot stop giving. Aronofsky takes this notion and boils it down to its essence, giving us a house and the two people that inhabit it.
What then of that horrific final act? That’s us. That’s our species caught between that destructive relationship. We are their children, fighting for favour, fighting to possess that which is not ours, destroying ourselves and our parents in the process. Aronofsky’s Old Testament is one of temptations and destruction on a small, personal scale. After God’s divine inspiration to write the New Testament in the second act, we are presented with the aftermath. We are taken to our species’ darkest nooks and crannies, our soul searing ability to destroy that which we should cherish. Is sequence horrific? Yes. But not more so than reality. Is it gratuitous? To me, no. It serves an important function to deepen the meaning of the allegory. To me, what is probably the most horrific scene in the movie where mother gets brutally beaten when she’s down, is about us destroying ourselves, destroying the nurturing and caring aspects of our being. All for dominance, possession, the love of a God and whatever other reason we might find to place our egos above someone else’s.
Aronofsky has crafted an allegory that stuns, startles and separates. I admire its bravado and courage, understand how it elicits such strong responses and consider it to be one of the strongest and most creative cinematic pieces in recent years.