In defence of mother! You will never be able to ‘unsee’ Jennifer Lawrence’s masterpiece
“I apologize for what I am about to do to you,” said director Darren Aronofsky to a crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival. In hindsight, this should have been the epigraph at the beginning of mother!.
The provocative filmmaker hadn’t really discussed his new film until then. Over the course of the months leading up to that moment, Aronofsky had somehow convinced a studio in the middle of its worst phase in years to bankroll a movie he’d written over a fevered weekend. He had convinced them to give him – a man whose previous film, the Biblical epic Noah, had angered several religious figures and been banned in many countries – to dictate the marketing campaign. He had refused to test screen his movie, an industry practice that would have perhaps softened the blow for when, months later, mother! would become one of only a dozen films in history to be given the terribly bad ‘F’ rating by paying audiences.
Mother! is a film as proudly provocative as its title – a movie about creation and destruction that has the unique ability to anger even the most nihilistic of audiences, let alone the believers in the many religions it consciously and deliberately challenges.
On one level – the most obvious, most widely acknowledged – it is a film about how we treat Mother Earth. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, commonly accepted to be the titular mother, is based in part on Gaia, the Greek personification of Earth, and Mary, arguably the most popular mother of all. “We pillage her, we rape her, we call her dirt,” Aronofsky said about our planet in an interview to Variety, perhaps also alluding to the crimes Lawrence’s character, a pregnant woman who lives on a farmhouse with her writer husband, is made to endure during the course of the film.
On another level, it’s the most literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, and perhaps the most unflattering depiction of the Old Testament God, a God who would punish those who didn’t pray to him with certain death, forced servitude and on occasion, torture. In mother! God is played by Javier Bardem’s character, who demands a frankly underserved and unconditional devotion from Lawrence’s character, who wants nothing more than ‘to build a paradise’.
She adores Him, despite His narcissism, in a sort of uncomfortable mirror of the real life relationship that developed during the filming of mother! between Aronofsky and Lawrence. She said in many interviews that she thought of him as a genius, and was convinced upon reading his script that the film would divide audiences. Later, in another interview, she implied that his obsession over this very divisiveness may have contributed to their breakup.
As with his previous movies – particularly Black Swan, Noah and Pi – Aronofsky’s obsession is born out of his personal history with these stories - he grew up in a Jewish household with a ballerina sister.
It was his fascination with a Biblical tale only 40 verses long that made him, and his co-writer Ari Handel, attempt to tell a tale that could – like the best art – be interpreted differently depending on who was watching it. Those looking for religious undertones will find many; as will the non-believers. Belief, however – in man-made deities or metaphysical beings or even abstract concepts – is necessary to this film’s success.
And it is successful, despite that borderline rancid score on Rotten Tomatoes, that cruel ‘F’ rating on CinemaScore, and a box office that couldn’t surpass the opening weekend tally of the Scooby Doo movie.
It is a film that challenges the rules that define not just cinema, but also narrative storytelling – you won’t find a three-act structure here, only constant escalation. Like a loud scream, paused only to catch enough breath for another, mother! is a relentlessly original story, despite the irony of it being inspired by what is famously known as the Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s shocking that the same people who complain about the industry being overrun by sequels, remakes and reboots, were the first to complain that mother! was an exercise in self-indulgence, which, in my opinion, is what every film should be.
In an ideal world, we should be able to look at one frame of a movie and be able to tell, with reasonable certainty, who made it. We should be able to listen to a line of dialogue and be able to say who wrote it. That’s how it is with the best filmmakers, even today. And in the future, when there are still hungry audiences watching mother! on their personal virtual reality headsets – VR will add another dimension to the rape scene, because the viewer would be present and forced to observe helplessly – they will recognise Aronofsky’s signature POV camera, always floating behind his subject, and gazing right into their souls.
Mother! is a masterpiece that you must never, ever see under any circumstances.