mother!

Metaphors upon allegories upon metaphors. Who is Javier Bardem’s nameless character (credited as ‘Him’), this father/husband/creator/messiah? What does he represent? What is this system of rebirth? Who are these guests? What is this house? It has a beating heart, felt by Jennifer Lawrence’s wife (credited as ‘mother’) in her fits of crumbling margins. There is a furnace, malign yet inviting, that constantly burns. A passage in the basement leads out, but is it logically possible to leave? Some guests go to the hospital but we stay, tethered like a ball-and-chain, with Lawrence. The house bleeds. A vaginal hole opens, closes, then re-opens, excreting viscous blood onto the basement floor. Invasion is replaced with chaos, war is replaced by a unified and terrifying cult, all while the house retains its geography, all movement choreographed to intensify the sense of trappedness.

The film splits into halves. The first is a ‘horror of manners’, where impertinent guests enter uninvited, worship ‘father’ and insult ‘mother’, and sully the house. The anxiety builds, in part, through the increasingly fluid sense of private space, and ‘mother’s’ waning control over it. The second half is a baroque hell much harder to categorise. The deep mystery of the house and the evil that descends upon it provoke so much thought that we may forget to ponder the workaday life of ‘mother’. In this house, like most of the world, the experience of domesticity is the experience of gendered exploitation. Much of the film’s horror comes from what’s commonly called ‘everyday sexism’: in the midst of absolute chaos a man aggressively flirts with ‘mother’, eventually calling her an ‘arrogant cunt’; she is silenced and sidelined by ‘him’ who’s intent on catering for everyone’s needs but hers; the chores – cooking, cleaning, complimenting, encouraging – are relentless and lonely. The film is at its weakest when Lawrence is ricocheting through the explosions and exploitation like a pinball. The most powerful moments come when the form – confrontational, extreme – meets the horror of patriarchal domesticity. The baby dies. Bardem’s cult devours its flesh, while intoning the same platitudes of condolence we heard Bardem recite ten minutes earlier. This is extremity in the service of making a point about banality, specifically the banality of men.

After a period of tight-lipped mystery, director Darren Aronofsky and (his current partner) Lawrence have revealed what lies behind the metaphors and allegories: ‘the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth,’ Aronofsky says; ‘the movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction,’ according to Lawrence. Aronofsky’s also conceded that the film is personal, a portrait of a great artist at work. We should give some weight to this interpretation. Searching for a new project, the director looked to those around him who have paid the price for his ‘genius’: family, friends, partners, those whose love, labour and life-force undergirded his creativity. Then he imagined the dreadful toll of this work. In a way, allegorising this into a film is a great act of empathy and humility. But to encase representations of these loved ones in a tectonic narrative, which shifts according to core principles, rather than will or chance, a cyclical trap that predetermines their outcomes and meanings, is an act of narcissism and cruelty. Aronofsky is guilty of this.