There has been much debate around Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! as to what it is all supposed to mean. Some have interpreted it as an environmentalist parable (a “Mother” who gives to an overpopulated world until she can give nothing more), and some have claimed it is as an allegory about religious delusions, or even an anti-Christian statement. Yet for all the discussion and controversy (which has fallen well short of A Clockwork Orange levels of outrage, despite the predictions of some), I actually found my own interpretation to be fairly straightforward, and even a trifle obvious.
For me, this is a difficult, darkly comic, savagely violent parable about the artistic process from the point of view of the muse. Mother! is a surreal, dreamlike experience that’s clearly intended as metaphorical and set in a world that’s a sidestep outside reality. For one thing, the characters have no proper names. The protagonist, “Mother”, is played by Jennifer Lawrence – a visceral and committed lead performance – alongside supporting characters including “Him” (Javier Bardem, Lawrence’s husband, a poet suffering from writer’s block), and various others that come to their country house, disrupting their idyllic existence.
The first of these is “Man” (Ed Harris) who inexplicably mistakes their house for a bed and breakfast. “Him” welcomes “Man” into their home, despite the misgivings of “Mother”. “Man” is later joined by his wife, “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), who proves to be a nosy, tactless houseguest. Both rather lack self-awareness, to put it mildly, and at this point it becomes obvious (to me at any rate) that the people, the place, the house itself (unfinished, and being decorated by “Mother”) are all symbolic elements in the artistic process. “Mother” tries to inspire “Him”; creating a good environment for him to work, continually sacrificing and giving… She ultimately inspires greatness, but “Him” turns to others for inspiration as well, inviting them into their private existence. When “Him” finally succeeds in writing a masterpiece, it is not just for “Mother” but must be shared with the whole world – a world that intrudes upon the wellbeing of “Mother” in very alarming ways.
What happens subsequently may or may not be taking place in the mind of “Mother”. For one thing she takes medicine regularly, yet at one key point in the narrative she stops. Does this somehow unleash the madness that follows? I should add warnings here for extremely strong language as well as brutal, bloody and shocking violence. Yet it would be exceedingly foolish to take even the most unpleasant, upsetting violence at face value. Again, to me the metaphors – about the artistic process – were fairly obvious.
Aronofsky has created a claustrophobic, unsettling piece here. By keeping his camera focussed in and around Jennifer Lawrence, the film becomes genuinely disorientating and nightmarish. There are echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and even Ben Wheatley’s High Rise at times, yet more than anything this feels like a companion piece to Aronofsky’s own Black Swan. It’s also the better film of the two.
I expect Mother! to polarise audiences as much as Aronofsky’s other films, but I must say I admire him. Mother! may be pretentious and self-indulgent at times, but it is also incisive, challenging, bracingly cinematic and actually in metaphorical terms quite honest in terms of the dark truths it confronts. Some will find the film offensive, no doubt, but as I said about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle earlier this year, I’d rather be offended than bored.