The early reviews of mother! are nothing short of unsettling. The new cinematic offering by director Darren Aronofksy (Black Swan; Requiem for a Dream), starring Jennifer Lawrence, has been dubbed “a very bad dream of very bad things”; “a roller-coaster-of-weird exhibitionism”; “an artist’s auto-critique”; “a macabre spectacle of revulsion”. The Guardian wrote that it left ‘no gob unsmacked’, which perfectly sums up my reaction when I watched the film, squirming and nauseated, at a preview screening.
Beyond the general consensus that the film is both eerie and shocking, there seems to be little agreement among critics on the meaning of this unruly film. But a couple of clues dropped by the film’s cast and crew suggest that the project — for all its flaws —actually conveys a powerful message about men’s treatment of women.
On the surface, the story is about a married couple living in a colossal, wedding cake of a house in the middle of a secluded field. Lawrence is a young, Rapunzel-haired wife — a literal homemaker, in the sense that she has rebuilt her husband’s mansion to perfection after it burned down in a mysterious fire. Her husband (Javier Bardem) is an older, celebrated poet and author who calls the shots, allowing uninvited visitors into the marital home despite Lawrence’s softly spoken protestations.
Lawrence’s character is relegated to the role of muse by her husband, and she’s ordered from her short-tempered husband’s writing room (at least one shot of the man at work is a clear nod to Jack Torrance in The Shining). It’s telling that Lawrence’s role is credited only as “mother”; she is not expected to identify as an autonomous being within the family dynamic, apparently. (Her husband, meanwhile, is credited as “him”; an identity that exists outside the marriage, and that gains new-age Godlike connotations as the film evolves.)
The giant, creaking house — alive, ever-evolving and seemingly haunted — soon reveals itself as a metaphor for their toxic marriage. Life-giving motifs peppered throughout the film are all marred by ill-health or trauma — a bloodstain in the shape of a vagina; a charred thing beating underneath the swelling, moving walls of the mansion; blood in the toilet that calls to mind both menstruation and a torn-out human heart.
The scenes of domestic oppression in the film are a metaphor for something much more universal, Lawrence confirms: “A creator always needs a muse. As long as the universe is expanding, men will be using women,”. The movie makes this clear: one uninvited house guest hits on Mother, then yells sexist slurs in her face when she rejects him; another character, buoyed by an inflated male ego, rejoices when he learns his unborn child will be male; one female character is groped during pregnancy, then denied agency over herparenting decisions. Mother’s bodily autonomy is constantly encroached, paralleling the unnerving way two strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) breach the boundaries of herhome when they arrive at the front door in the film’s early scenes.
Those themes of oppression and crossed boundaries work on another level simultaneously: Aronofsky is consciously drawing a link between women and the environment, his producer Ari Handel confirms in the production notes. “A few months after we were deep in the script, [Aronofsky] came across this book, Woman and Nature, by Susan Griffin. It was a piece of ‘70s philosophy that also sketched a parallel between how men sometimes treat women and how people treat the planet,” Handel has said. Griffin’s book is, of course, widely lauded as a seminal work of feminist literature; it explores the identification of women with the earth as both sustenance for humankind, and as victims of masculine rage.
“When Darren sat down to write this story, one of the main things he was thinking about was the way that human beings live on this planet and what they do to this planet,” elaborates Handel. “And he wanted to dramatize that by shrinking it all the way down: to one relationship in one house.” The titular Mother, then, is not only the name of Jennifer Lawrence’s character; she is, in fact, Mother Earth. And if we keep treating her as badly as Bardem treats Lawrence in this disquieting movie, Aronofsky seems to be saying, we can anticipate just as gruesome a finale.
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