mother! ★★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober 2017

“I am I.”

In 1848, Orson Squires Fowler published The Octagon House: A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building, a tome dedicated to the virtues of eight-sided dwellings as opposed to the four-sided ones in which your everyday unenlightened Victorian lived. Octagonal houses had many benefits according to Fowler’s concisely titled treatise—cheaper construction, easier heating and cooling, expanded living space, increased natural light. Fowler was not a professional architect or engineer—he was instead one of the country’s foremost proponents of phrenology, the pseudoscientific nonsense about head shape and size being determinant of personality, intelligence, and individual characteristics, the better to justify slavery and disparage the Jews.

While today Fowler’s 15 minutes of fame would likely involve a Cabinet post, in the mid-nineteenth century they took the form of setting off a brief fad of stop sign-shaped housing in the American Midwest and Northeast and adjacent parts of Canada (including Ontario’s “deadhouses,” used as holding sites for corpses during winter when the cold made grave-digging a difficult task). Octagon houses did not become the norm—most still were rectangular or square in shape—but the fad demonstrates the importance of “home” in the American mindset, the idea that if one can just create a living space of sufficient distinctiveness and quality, of coziness and style, with a place for everything and everything in its place, then one’s life will be immeasurably improved. My house will be an expression of and an extension of me, my paradise, my shelter. From the impossible-to-meet fantasies of home renovation television to the mortgage interest deduction, the American dream involves not just the acquisition of a home but the acquisition of the perfect home—gateway to and embodiment of the perfect life lived by the perfect person.

But octagonal edifices are not the exclusive province of individualists with a fondness for testing others’ fontanels. Octagons have long been used as an architectural design component, especially in religious buildings; octagonal floor plans grace everything from the Dome of the Rock to St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa to countless European churches. Even the labyrinth of the Reims Cathedral—onetime coronation site of France’s monarchs—resembles an octagon with other smaller octagons as offshoots.

It is sensible then that mother! would take place entirely on the grounds of a lovingly restored house, and that that house would be octagonal in shape and replete with octagonal design elements, from windowpanes to door panels to floor inlays. Him (Javier Bardem), the God-figure in Darren Aronofsky’s religious allegory-cum-apocalypse, is the house’s owner, and why shouldn’t God’s house resemble a cathedral? Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), meanwhile, painstakingly renovates the house following its destruction in a fire, with the express goal of making the dwelling a paradisiacal sanctuary in which the couple’s fondest dreams—which may involve having a child but which certainly involve Him overcoming writer’s block—might come true.

The persistence of octagons might count as one of Aronofsky’s subtler elements (at the very least, Fowler and the Reims Cathedral’s labyrinth are not matters of common knowledge) in a film that is often derided for its lack of subtlety. And it is true that mother!, while being many things, is not subtle. Its Biblical allusions are apparent to anyone with a basic knowledge of Christian lore; its metaphorical representations of climate change and the horrors visited upon the artist’s muse are sometimes so thinly veiled as to be hardly metaphorical at all. Indeed, the lack of a name for any of the characters immediately announces them as symbolic, and Him is a once-famous poet looking to anyone, be it Mother or Man (Ed Harris) or Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) or the faceless horde that eventually descends upon his manse, to inspire his writing and feed his ego, costs be damned. It is, as they say, as subtle as a ton of bricks.

Nor is Aronofsky’s pilfering from other sources any more disguised. There is the Bible, of course, though what artist hasn’t disregarded the seventh commandment where inspiration is concerned? And there is The Giving Tree, which Aronofsky has cited as an influence and from which a direct quotation is taken to inspire one of the film’s bitterest laughs. But there are also Polanski, von Trier, Fellini, Buñuel, Lynch—even a bit of A Night at the Opera, with the spacious home subbing in for Groucho et al.’s confined stateroom. No film whose poster directly references Rosemary’s Baby—one of cinema’s all-time iconic bits of marketing—is being coy about its surfeit of inspiration and homage.

So yes, it is fair to say that mother! is to subtlety as Wile E. Coyote is to simplicity. It is curious to see this point discussed so earnestly—in some ways, it is curious to see it discussed at all. Of course Aronofsky’s film is unsubtle—it is so on purpose. But “subtlety,” like so many other critical buzzwords (“pretentious,” “clichéd,” “predictable”), tells us almost nothing on its own about the quality of the item being critiqued. Rather, it is a signifier of the critic’s ultimate opinion, pro or con, that can serve to obviate explication of that opinion’s underpinnings. Dislike a movie? Decry its predictable, clichéd plot, its heavy-handedness, its pretentious tone. All of which is fair enough—bad movies can be bad due to any or all of these factors. Yet glorifying a particular stylistic or structural choice as innately superior paints with far too broad a brush; nowhere is this truer than in the lionization of subtlety as an inherent virtue. Is Buñuel’s blasphemous restaging of The Last Supper by a gang of drunken revelers subtle? What about Bergman exploring quandaries of faith, doubt, and God’s silence by having his protagonist play a game of chess with Death? Or Scorsese’s portrait of Travis Bickle’s mental deterioration via “You talkin’ to me?” repeatedly spoken into a mirror? Which part of Some Like It Hot or The Producers is the ne plus ultra of subtlety?

As with anything it is the how, not the what, that matters. The real question is not whether a film is subtle or blunt, but in either case how it deploys its chosen method. And the question for mother! is not whether it is subtle—it is whether mother! and its deliberate, gleeful lack of subtlety are good. One’s mileage will undoubtedly vary, but for me, the answer is a resounding yes. At a minimum, no film as wildly entertaining as mother! can be all bad (certainly not one that gives us Pfeiffer as a cross between Margo Channing in All About Eve’s party scene and a Venus flytrap). And it is hard not to applaud the ambition on display—whatever Aronofsky is up to, artistic timidity is not part of it. What is more, Aronofsky’s go-for-broke approach includes so many layers and allusions giddily bouncing off of each other that it can be easy to overlook the film’s simplest, most straightforward strength—that for anyone, but most particularly for a woman, hell is other people.

That Aronofsky would use a Biblical framework for his story is unsurprising—a professed atheist, the writer-director has been interested in religion and its influence since his debut feature, Pi. Aronofsky has stated that he was partly inspired to write mother! by a discovery during his research for Noah that some scholars believe the translation of the Book of Genesis’ opening words to be more accurately rendered “In a beginning,” rather than “In the beginning”—hence mother!’s cyclical structure of destruction-rejuvenation, ready to repeat ad infinitum. And using elements of a widely known tale provides the viewer a point of orientation amid the escalating madness. Him and Mother create a paradise in an idyllic, verdant setting; a Man intrudes, bearing a wound near his ribcage; shortly thereafter, a Woman, his wife, appears; then their two sons, Eldest Son (Domnhall Gleason), the disfavored, and Younger Brother (Brian Gleason), the beloved, arrive, followed by Eldest Son, in a fit of jealous pique, murdering Younger Brother; eventually humanity expands until a flood (thanks to a broken kitchen sink) drives them all away. After many moons, and as long promised, Mother—whose relationship to Him is primarily chaste—gives birth to a son who is then sacrificed for the sake of Him’s acolytes, for which Him readily forgives them. A PhD in religious studies is not necessary to see the parallels, though mother! performs the great service of reminding a world benumbed by over-familiarity just how bizarre so much of the Bible (such as the communion sacrament) can be.

Yet it would be too simplistic, or at least too incomplete, to call mother! just a retelling of some of the Christian holy book’s high points. For one, Aronofsky does not map things from Scripture to screen in neat one-to-one bits—Mother serves as some combination of God’s feminine side, the Earth, and the Virgin Mary; Woman is both Eve and serpent; the Great Flood, an attempt to wipe out mankind and start (mostly) fresh, is unnecessary where the process is bound to repeat itself anyway. For another, it does not account for the environmentally active Aronofsky’s notions regarding climate change, with Mother as Earth Mother, abused by all around her, bowing under the weight of their degradation while trying desperately to foster new life until nothing will do short of a cleansing fire to rid her home of the neverending hominid pestilence.

But mother!’s real strength is in using these allegorical frameworks for other, more personal inquiries. Aronofsky has denied that there is anything autobiographical or confessional in mother!, nothing about his relationship with ex-fiancée Rachel Weisz. Yet it is hard not to see an element of self-examination, possibly even self-critique, in mother!’s portrait of an artist whose interpersonal avarice and egomania destroys those he claims to love, up to and including the woman who sacrifices everything for him. mother! plants seeds of discord in Him and Mother’s relationship early—he ignores her pleas to turn away Man and passes off his self-serving invitation as her own; he revels in Man’s appreciation of his writing, dismissing her investment in his creative success; he holds as a prized possession a crystal gifted to him from a former love, placing at the center of his life something she fears she can never replicate. Mother agonizes to create a space of tranquility, warmth, and beauty in which Him can break through his creative blockage only to be criticized for holding Him hostage in a house that is not hers but his. (That she chooses to rebuild the burned-down edifice is, as Woman notes, a curious choice—starting from scratch would seem to be easier, and would excise the ghosts of prior drafts of Him’s life. But then, as with so much else, perhaps Mother had no choice in the matter.) When Mother’s pregnancy finally breaks through Him’s mental fog, he attributes it equally to Man and Woman and the attendees at Younger Brother’s wake, eager to rob her of any role as his inspiration—similarly, her first feelings of the baby’s kicks are overshadowed by Him’s completion of his manuscript (to say nothing of what overshadows labor and delivery). “What price greatness?” is a constant question in art, from Whiplash’s queasy teacher-student dynamic to Kubrick putting Shelley Duvall through endlessly exhausting takes in The Shining explicitly to break her down. Him’s abuse and exploitation of Mother yields a universally heralded masterpiece—but if the result is the end of the world, it’s hard to say it’s worth it.

As if the artist-muse dynamic weren’t enough, mother! serves as an exemplary explication of the introvert’s worst nightmare: a presumptuous houseguest overstaying his welcome. There is an element of Gothic terror, of Rebecca and Gaslight and “The Yellow Wallpaper” to mother! that provides not just suspense and unease but lends the film an element of waking nightmare, particularly where society’s treatment of women is concerned. Mother’s requests are never less than reasonable and delivered with softness and restraint—there is almost a sense of apology as she asks that Man not smoke in the house on which she has worked so hard. And yet at every turn she is made out to be a scold, a nag, a harridan for simply wanting people not to sit on an unbraced sink or to steal her belongings. And that is when she is listened to at all—just as often she is ignored, as though her requests to be left alone in her own home are delivered into a void, as though her cries not to be abandoned when a murderer lurks about the property are spoken in a language only she understands. Glimpses of Him’s true motivations slip through now and then—he enjoys Man’s adoration of his work, despite the deceitful pretense used to invade their home; he doesn’t want his worshipers to go away no matter the damage they cause because he loves basking in their praise—but mostly Him’s approach is that of the classic abuser: Reframe reasonableness and attempted compromise as insubordination and madness, ignore what is inconvenient, steamroll past any objection and thus make might right.

Aronofsky’s cast is more than up to the task. Harris, in what is probably the weakest of the main performances (though only by comparison), plays the Man as kindly, gregarious, and weak—a man of such poor constitution and vague geniality that to evict him can be spun as uncharitable even though to welcome him is self-serving and unjustified. Bardem perfectly calibrates charm, gruffness, cruelty, and egomania, making Him believable as a man whose sense of his own greatness rubs off on enough of those around him to cause incalculable destruction. Pfeiffer, given her juiciest role in years, plays it to the hilt—her Woman is devious, soused, and imperturbably entitled, delightedly offending Mother with pointed questions about her sex life while taking exaggerated offense of her own at Mother not being dressed for a party foisted upon her in the middle of the night. And Kristen Wiig is hilarious in a brief appearance as the Herald, an envoy from Him’s publisher who treats the film’s increasingly chaotic bacchanal as something between a banal stage-managed book signing and a firing squad. But mother! would not work without Lawrence, who is onscreen, primarily in medium to extreme close-up, for the vast majority of the runtime. Lawrence seamlessly shifts through Mother’s many faces—beatific, bewildered, protective, enraged—crafting a coherent character out of a role who exists mostly as an idea, or perhaps an array of ideas: Woman as artist’s inspiration, as life-giving force, as nurturer and caretaker, as critical-but-undervalued member of society.

Taken together, these layers form something horrific and uproarious and outrageous—a rejection of subtlety in favor of passion and provocation. mother! is imperfect, to be sure, but it is ostentatious and compelling in exactly the way that something tasteful never could be. A world in which every film were the symbolic cacophony of mother! would be exhausting...but then, so would a world in which every film were the delicate gossamer of Brief Encounter. Like the octagonal house in which the film is set—a house that Him finally and explicitly equates with Mother, casting her as an expression of and extension of Him, his paradise, his shelter—mother! is a construction designed largely to draw attention to itself, and it is valuable for exactly that reason. Him is Him. Mother is home. And mother! is mother!

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