mother!

The Pain Of Being Married To An Artist

Now, we delve into the extra-textual. You may have noticed (or have read other people writing about this topic) that there’s a fairly large age gap between Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. Bardem is 48 and Lawrence is 27. You may also know that Lawrence began dating Darren Aronofsky, who is also 48, after making this movie. Aronofsky’s relationship with Weisz, another big-name actress, ended a few years ago, but its existence is difficult to ignore considering what occurs in mother!. As such, it’s easy to interpret parts of this film as Aronofsky’s perception of what it must be like for any woman to be involved with a male artist, or what it must have been like for Weisz to be engaged to him.

In this reading, the characters played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, their warring sons, Him’s constantly chipper agent played by Kristen Wiig (because, y’know, why not have Kristen Wiig show up for two minutes amidst general chaos?), and everyone else are just interlopers who won’t give a presumably loving couple a minute of peace. Or, rather, they’re all interlopers who Him would rather spend time with as opposed to spending time with his doting wife. Him seems to love Mother – whenever she pushes him, tries to point out that he’s ignoring her at every turn in favor of a gaggle of strangers whose number inexplicably grows with each passing second, he tries to play the warm and sensitive husband. But even in the wild finale — as an example, Wiig’s character starts out as blandly friendly, until the riot breaks out, when she’s ordering that naysayers get shot and killed — Mother is on her own.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique deliberately keep the camera as close to Lawrence as possible, making it so Mother can’t even escape the frame, let alone get a moment of peace in a place she wants “to make a paradise.” When Him appears, Mother becomes subservient in a sense, treated callously by the random people who have shown up to spend time at their house, insulted viciously by other men, and in what is the most unsettling moment of the film, physically beaten by his followers. (Yes, I know: a lot of nutty stuff happens in this movie, but the shock value of a moment like Mother’s baby being eaten by Him’s followers cannot exceed the visceral nastiness of watching her being physically harmed.) Those who love Him and his work ignore Mother, in his permanent thrall. What’s more disturbing: Him may prefer this dynamic.

In these scenes, especially those where Harris and Pfeiffer’s characters monopolize Him for their own interest, we are meant to pity Mother. She’s a gorgeous young woman – Harris almost instantly notes that he presumed she was Him’s daughter – and treats her husband so well that she’s almost a caricature of the suburbanite housewife. And yet, she’s treated scornfully by those around her, and Him barely takes notice of her. Maybe this is how Aronofsky has chosen to process the end of his relationship with Weisz, or how he perceives it when a woman is cast to the side in favor of her partner.

Weisz, it should be noted, is an exceptionally talented Oscar-winning actress, which would seemingly put a pin in this theory. (Mother is shown to be a capable housewife, but doesn’t seem to have any interest in other extracurriculars.) Yet there is something unavoidable about the vagaries of real life impeding on this story, one in which the male character is seen as dominant by everyone else and his wife, as immortalized in the title, is lowercase through and through. If The Fountain could be seen as a warped love letter to Weisz, as some critics have argued, mother! could be the warped apologia to her after the dissolution of their relationship.

mother clip

Conclusion

Both Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence have said that mother! is actually an allegory for how humanity treats the environment, positing her character as Mother Nature (and presumably Bardem’s character as God) and all of the interlopers as those who wish to destroy the natural beauty of the world. The multitude of possibilities speaks to something that I found unable to ignore at the core of this film: despite a truly dedicated lead performance, mother! is a series of metaphors in search of a connective thread.

Aronofsky excels at making films that are claustrophobic, suspenseful, and manic, as his lead characters lose their minds and often self-harm to the point of death. On the surface, that’s exactly what happens in mother!. Mother starts as a placid and benevolent figure, but the opening moments foreshadow the fiery finale. The problem is not that this film doesn’t fit in with the rest of Aronofsky’s works. It’s that this movie is largely all surface. Each of the allegories mentioned above is fun to discuss and write about, and there are striking images (as you would expect) within. But it’s a far cry from his best film, Black Swan, which also depicts the mental and physical unraveling of a beautiful young woman in the name of pleasing an older man. Both Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence give themselves over fully to their respective characters, but there’s far more going on in the 2010 thriller than in this new film. mother! is a remarkably realized vision, but oddly hollow if you move past the metaphors.

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.