Critically acclaimed yet wildly controversial, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) is a film that defies easy definition. Following the enigmatic couple of poet Him (Javier Bardem) and his partner Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), the film introduces us to the surreal dream world the couple inhabit, before showing us how it all falls apart with the arrival of Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfieffer).
The film challenges audiences on almost every level. It toys with Biblical symbolism, advances an environmental message, draws on the tropes of gothic romance and refracts all that through an esoteric dream-like logic and atmosphere. Think of it as Beauty & The Beast on a bad acid trip with a lot to say about the world, humanity and God, directed by the man who gave us Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream and The Wrestler, among many other great films.
As you can imagine then, it’s not exactly the kind of film you can fully take in with one viewing. So, in the service of cinema, art and truth, we decided to watch it a second, third and fourth time in honour of its release on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital to tease out the hidden meanings, references and themes of the film that eluded us on first viewing.
1. It’s An Allegory For The Garden of Eden
This aspect of the film was pretty apparent from the first watch if I’m honest, but there is just so much Biblical stuff going on in the film, and it feeds into other themes so much, it’s impossible not to at least touch on this in passing.
The film loosely follows the plot of the Book Of Genesis, with Him as God, Mother as Earth and the house as Eden. Man and Woman are then Adam and Eve – that’s why Ed Harris has a gaping wound in his back duh, it’s from when he lost his rib to make Eve – and all the subsequent unpleasantness of their time in the house and their eventual ejection is a metaphor for original sin and the loss of Eden, which of course plays into the film’s environmental themes. Give all that a minute to sink in.
2. It’s All About The Environment
The parallels from the loss of Eden to our current environmental crisis are stark and Aronofsky makes the point often. From the beginning of the film when Mother hears a heartbeat in the walls, it’s clear that she and the house are connected. Under the environmental reading of the film, one can argue that they both represent nature – the house reflecting the physical aspect and mother the spiritual.
This is why she is wary of visitors, and so incensed when they don’t treat the house with respect, and why she lashes out in violence against them, much as mother nature reacts with climate change to our own lack of respect as guests. Aronofsky litters the film with clues to this, having Mother directly refer to mess made by guests as an “apocalypse” at one point, with the denouement serving as a neon red warning against ongoing lack of care for the environment.
3. It’s Like A Freudian Nightmare Version Of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
This opening section of the film has also been likened to the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in that both works have a lot to do with politics of manners and how to deal with unwelcome house guests.
Aronofsky isn’t happy to just retread the same ground as Albee however, the filmmaker deftly manipulating the classic drama trope of two couples at odds with each other in a claustrophobic setting. Amping up the weird and cramming every line of dialogue with subtext and intrigue, instead of taking up the usual themes of the genre, he re-imagines the drawing room drama through a lens of psycho-sexual biblical imagery that is as confronting and engaging as it is surreal.
4. It’s Not Too Keen On Material Wealth Either
Following on from the Biblical imagery of The Garden Of Eden and Paradise Lost, Eldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson) and Younger Son (Brian Gleeson) – the offspring of Man and Woman who turn up at the house arguing over the will left by Man – are then Cain and Abel.
Cain and Abel, of course, are the brothers who famously didn’t get along so well because God liked Abel’s sacrifices better than Cain’s. This of course then leads Cain to murder Abel which we see mirrored in Eldest Son’s murder of Younger Son.
Now the first time I watched this I didn’t quite understand why the murder of Younger Son leads to a rush of people who flood into the house in the scenes that follow. But going back to the Bible story, I saw that while Adam and Eve have already committed Original Sin, Cain killing Abel was the first act of evil in the world. While in the Bible the killing occurs over a bid to win the favour of God, in the film it occurs over the will of Man, a symbol of personal property. This then is the birth of greed, beget by violence, and crowds who arrive after the Eldest Son flees are driven by greed to violence.
While Man and Woman weren’t ideal guests, and their children even less so, what Aronofsky seems to be telling us is that as weak as humanity is, once brother has turned against brother in the name of greed, there is no avoiding the flood.
5. Aronofsky Really Loves The Flood and Noah’s Ark
Considering Aronofsky also made Noah (2014) – a film about the eponymous ark builder of the Old Testament – the fact that he snuck in some flood symbolism into Mother! as well seems to suggest he has a real affinity for the The Flood story.
In the film, following on from the death of Younger Son, the house begins to be “flooded” with more and more people who proceed to take Mother’s hospitality for granted and ruin the house. These are of course the sinners that made God want to wash it all away and get Noah to build an ark. In keeping with reference they eventually flood the house, and Mother kicks them out.
6. The Virgin Mary, Christ and the Birth of Religion.
Following the flood, Mother berates Him for allowing so many people in the house. She accuses him of ignoring her in favour of pursuing his own pleasure, but then the two have sex, with Mother announcing the next morning that she’s pregnant. Because art.
This then inspires Him to finish the poem he has been working on, which once published sells out immediately and Mother plans a dinner to celebrate. Before long the house is overrun with fans, who once again start damaging the house – seriously this film is like one big ad against having people over for dinner – and steal things as keepsakes.
Mother then goes into labour, finds Him, and gives birth in his study as the crowd calms down in anticipation of seeing the child. Mother doesn’t want to let them see it and refuses but when she falls asleep Him takes the child down to the crowd who pass it around carelessly, breaking its neck and eventually cannibalising it just as Mother, recently awoken, crashes into the scene to try and rescue the child.
7. The Film Isn’t Really Anti-Religion, It’s Anti-People
While the film has been rife with biblical imagery up to this point, the sequence described above has Aronofsky showing us religion within the world of the film for the first time. The rituals the fans build around Him and the later barbarism they commit, demonstrates the director’s view of how religion works, instead of merely using religious imagery as a base to build his narrative on as he has done so far.
The imagery is decidedly Judeo-Christian. The marks the followers wear are reminiscent of Ash Wednesday and the cannibalism does add a rather macabre sense of Holy Communion to the whole thing. However, the idea that the people, in their adherence to dogma, end up destroying the very core ideal a belief system is built around applies to all religions, and I believe was intended that way by the director.
This is not a condemnation of religion or the spiritual but rather humanity’s inability to come to grips with its place within them. That sin isn’t something external to be warded off but something within us we must control. The child and the poem it inspired are no less beautiful, magical or important because of the action of the fanatics. Just as the ideals and philosophies of the world’s religions aren’t any less beautiful, magical or important because of the actions of weak or corrupt priests.
8. It’s As Much About Celebrity As Anything Else
Couched in the film’s biblical and environmental commentary is a much more contemporary theme – celebrity. Or more importantly the line between fanaticism and fandom.
Not only is Him a poet and a creator, he is also an artist and due to his success at it, a celebrity – much as Aronofsky, Lawrence and Bardem are. So the fans who descend on the house are really us – the audience.
Just as the guests end up tearing up the house and eventually Mother’s child in their desire to own or take part in the celebrity of Him, so too do audiences tear apart the works they love in order to understand or possess them.
9. It Sees Artist and Muse as an Abusive Relationship
At its core, the film is about an abusive creative relationship. Him manipulates Mother in the name of art at the expense of her pain and suffering. Yet the art he creates only exists because of her, or more specifically her suffering, establishing a vampiric form of the artist and muse paradigm.
What is most interesting about this reading though, is that rather than be disgusted or abhorred at the destruction of his creation, Him enjoys the attention regardless. It is Mother or the muse who suffers when the work/their child is destroyed, not Him/the artist.
After all, as we see at the end, even though Mother, their child and the house are all destroyed, Him can still take the last love Mother has left for him and create her and the house anew, although Mother is not the same.
10. It Might Be Aronfsky’s Most Personal Work To Date
Despite all the weighty themes at play in the film, reading it as a kind of personal exorcism of Aronfsky’s creative process is a fascinating process. I didn’t really get this until my final viewing but something about the way Him comes out unscathed at the end made me look past the obvious parallels of the artist as God and just look at him as an artist, spared destruction not because he is divine and impervious, but because the destruction was itself all apart of his creation and he is therefore not subject to it. And what if his creation is the story of the film as much as it is the character of Mother herself?
He creates something he loves, but has to watch it suffer as he puts it through pain and anguish through the art of creation. This is much like how a writer must create a character they love first – no one cares about bad characters after all – then throw them into anguish and drama to create the story. The writer must then push the character further and further until it lashes out against the story and, by asserting itself, come to end the story, which in turn ends them. Just as Mother eventually strikes out at Him and the fanatics leaving her a burned wreck. Just as a character must end with their story, so too must Mother die with hers. All that is left for the artist then is to pick through the ashes and start all over again.
Looking back at Aronfsky’s career and how his films leave his characters, you could say he has made a career of putting his characters through hell until they can’t take it anymore and then just start all over again. Mother! can be a challenging watch, but it’s worth putting in the time.