The obstreperous exclamation mark that holds a bullhorn to the title of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film befits both the mounting clamour of the work itself, and a director who, in 48 years, has yet to discover his “indoor voice”. You feel he may well carry it on his business card: Darren Aronofsky!
But what is all the Sturm und Drang about? Other filmmakers not known for their subtlety – Lars von Trier, Matthew Barney, Gaspar Noé, Guillermo del Toro, Harmony Korrine – at least appear to stand for something, some unique force field of artistic sensibilities. Aronofsky, however, cannot seem to ally his bludgeoning style to any consistent vision or creed. His is an artistry bereft of stable coordinates, and that incoherence is nowhere better on view than in mother! (lowercase “m”, exclamation mark).
Even without the punctuation, the title is intriguingly multidimensional. Referring not only to the maternal figure, “mother” takes in as well the Virgin Mary and the grace she emanates, the female head of a religious community (and house), Mother Earth herself, and an early modern term for a “female complaint” traditionally associated with the womb and whose chief symptom was a chronic shortness of breath: the so-called rising or suffocation of the mother. All of these meanings are at work in the film, to its symbolic detriment.
In King Lear, Shakespeare has the old king “feminise” himself in a telling figure of suffocation:
O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
Histerica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow.
This cardinal link, between a malady of the womb, an inability to breathe, and that tell-tale word “Histerica”, would be crystalized in the medical literature as the now discredited disorder, hysteria.
The hysteric is a staple of the literature, theatre, TV, and film of male-dominated society. The woman who, worn thin by the trials of socialization and sexualisation, bends, warps, turns shrill, and finally breaks, offering disorienting glimpses into the cyclone of crazy consuming her. If it provides the actress with unprecedented opportunities to push beyond the conventions of everyday performance, hysteria also emanates strong signals of the misogyny that sees unleashed female passion as sickness.
Famous hysterics include Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (Polanski, 1965), Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968), Sussannah York in Images (Altman, 1972), (my god, my god) Isabelle Adjani in Possession (Żuławski, 1981), or Julianne Moore in Magnolia (Anderson, 2000). We know Darren Araonofsky has a personal stake in this ambivalent stereotype, because we have seen Natalie Portman metamorphosing into a demented Cygnus in his openly hysterical schlocker, Black Swan (2010).
Aronofsky’s new film begins in classic “hysteric” mode. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman devotedly restoring a grand country home for her older poet husband (Javier Bardem) while he struggles with writer’s block. Crucially, they aren’t fucking, and this explains the absence of children, her distracted and nervous disposition, and the strange yellow tonic she consumes to restore her straitened breath (honey and asafoetida being a traditional remedy for hysteria). Mystically attuned to the house, she can touch its walls and feel the beating heart of it throbbing there in the woodwork.
The film approaches this hysteria with a peculiar aesthetic: a roaming camera eye, turning and turning in the narrowing gyre of the rotunda-like house, always responsive to Lawrence’s restless movements, a swirling Panopticon of cinematography. The internal doors are open, the sullen light washes across the circular floorplan, and outside no road or drive interrupts the grassland that extends to the very door (which she can never pass through).
Enter Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who bring with them all the annoyances of the human condition (noise, bad habits, illness, curiosity, rudeness, etc.), and some of the benefits – devotion, sexuality, passion. This new source of domestic energy inspires the remarkably hospitable poet, but ties Jennifer Lawrence into knots of jealous anxiety and triggers her latent hysteria. If only she could banish these insufferable intruders! But, like the minor Kafka characters they resemble, they will not depart. Soon enough their sons are amongst them, violently feuding, and before long, a large funeral cortege has converged on the house, tearing into the very fabric of the couple’s co-existence.
Until, at last, a solution suggests itself. Sex on the staircase! In a moment’s writhing vertical passion, months, even years of frustration are worked off, and before anybody can say, “pregnancy test”, a baby is born. But this event, mirrored by the poet’s victory over his writer’s block with a sudden efflorescence of literary genius, is the portal to the truly distressing second half of a film which departs dramatically from the hysterical format.
For at this point, hysteria modulates into something else – dementia praecox or paranoid schizophrenia, the camera dwelling on the phantasmagoria of alien beings thronging the mental landscape. In the second part of mother! Jennifer Lawrence is literally besieged by the outside, as wave upon wave of human otherness invades and colonises her space to the last cubic millimetre. The forms they take are prototypical: a line of rioters squares off against a line of riot cops; religious devotees rip relics from the walls and clash over them; a war zone opens up in the parlour; assassinations and suicide missions occur.
There have been few episodes in cinema to compare with these vignettes of the domestic interior giving way so utterly to a hostile exterior (the films of Luis Buñuel, however, come to mind). For a few extraordinary minutes, it is as if the very ethic of domesticity and bourgeois “housekeeping” – the ethic that keeps a dominant movie industry ticking over – has been routed.
But that is swiftly forgotten once this episode leads to its inevitable (and pitiably stupid) climax. The woman, J-Law, is now understood to have been the mere circumstance of the poet’s creative rebirth. And as she runs to unleash the full power of her furious revenge, consuming the very home she has renovated in a great deluge of flames, we see that she is ultimately replaceable: a muse, and nothing more.
mother! then is a bleat of guilty conscience from a filmmaker who gets it: he’s a patriarchal artist too! Oh, how we do exploit our muses! That he is now romantically attached to Jennifer Lawrence makes this aspect of Aronofsky’s film a little sick-making.
But the allegories don’t end there. With another twist of the conveniently oiled kaleidoscope, we realise that that what we had first taken to be a “female malady” movie is also (at the same time!) a very clunky Biblical allegory, whose first half tackles the Book of Genesis (Eden, God and Mother Earth in perfect and empty homeostasis, until interrupted by Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, who “brought death into the world and all our woe”). The second half features the Gospels of the New Testament (immaculate conception, virgin birth, sacrifice, the rise of the world’s most successful religion, and the eclipse of God by the Church, along with a prophesied Apocalypse).
But wait, there’s more! Order now, and you get an up-to-date ecological allegory, completely free!! For with one last unbelieving twist of the device, all of this is transformed into still another story about the rape and pillage of Mother Earth herself. “He” just uses “her” up to propagate his own narcissistic image, inviting all and sundry to partake of her domestic bounty, which the flood of Yahoo-like humanity readily despoils and desecrates with each selfish gesture of unholy impermanence.
Aronofsky’s incoherence as a filmmaker, the various trajectories and false starts he has pursued as an artist, is reflected in this work’s inability to establish a stable axis of significance. Uncertain of its own truth, the film stretches itself across no fewer than four interpretive constructs, in a well-nigh medieval allegorical effort to come across as spiritually profound. But allegory doesn’t work that way today. The best contemporary allegories, like Lynch’s rebooted Twin Peaks: The Return, operate along two inconsistent paths simultaneously, dwelling in the discomfort and occasional radiance of the disjunction. Aronofsky’s ham-fisted attempt, despite some truly luminous moments, is a testament to his exclamatory commitments as an artist, and not any underlying vision.
You feel, by the end of this truly insufferable film, betrayed in every way imaginable. The looks of befuddlement and perplexity on the faces of people walking away from this film are not signs of their mental dimness or unadventurousness, but of the artist’s unforgivable failure to take them seriously.
Authors: Julian Murphet, Professor in Modern Film and Literature, Director of the Centre for Modernism Studies, UNSW