Thoughts On: Mother - The Maternal Nightmare


Mother - The Maternal Nightmare

Thoughts On: Mother! (2017)

Chaos emerges in a crumbling household when a fan shows up at the door.

Aronofsky's Mother is a difficult film. The first hour is bad. The second hour builds into a twenty minute masterpiece. And the ending is precariously balanced. If you are still to see this film, I certainly recommend you watch it - and probably before reading on. If you have seen this film, or do not mind having it spoiled in its entirety, please read on.

Mother is a film about, as the title of this posts suggests, a maternal nightmare. In such, this follows the mother of a childish man who thinks he is a messiah and, coincidentally, has his wish fulfilled by the world. As his wish is fulfilled, this film draws upon biblical tropes, portraying the man as a corrupt God or failed Christ-figure who sacrifices his son and wife without reason and without any understanding of the complex subtext of biblical/archetypal stories. In many senses, this is then a film about childish vanity. Without losing sight of our main character's role, however, this is a film about the consequences of the oedipal saviour.

To start unpacking this narrative, it is best to begin by analysing the crystal jewel that the man treasures so dearly. As the ending suggests, this jewel is the heart of a woman that the man stole. We can think of this with two key questions. Is this the heart of a previous wife? Or, is this the heart of the man's mother? The crux of these questions lies in their redundancy. It does not matter who the heart belongs to if the man is caught in an endless cycle of recycling wives as there must have been a starting point: the man's mother. We can assume, and leading on from the fact that this is a film all about motherhood, that the man maps his perception of his mother onto his wives. After all, this is how he treats them: he only wants their love and is unwilling to give anything back to them. But, if the wives are essentially his mother, then it does not necessarily make sense for us to see them as distinguished figures. The man has no mother just like he has no wife. He only has a false idol (a perfect embodiment of Mother Nature) that he continually exploits. In a sense, there is also no man, there are only archetypes: the false, oedipal messiah and the tortured idol of maternity.

The false messiah exploits his idol by coercing her to love him and set up a domain within which he will exist, thrive and continue to exploit her. This is the home that the wife constructs. And whilst she builds what is essentially a sanctuary for the man, he provides nothing: he does not write. And so he searches for inspiration.

This is the point at which I have to stop analysing the film and start criticising it. The first hour of Mother only works so well in retrospect; it sets up the final half, but in a very clunky manner. In such, we are thrown into the story and are never introduced to characters. Whilst it is completely reasonable that Aronofsky would do this considering the implied cyclical structure of this plot, mistakes are made in subverting classical structure. Without an introduction to the story, just an immediate inciting incident, there is no time to know characters. This is clearly part of the design of the movie: we are supposed to see the mentioned archetypes, and this is all. However, because of the intense passivity of the wife and the equally intense absurdity of every single other character in the first half of this film, the archetypes often become bad caricatures as they show no logic or humanity; they aren't even half-decent shells of people.

What Aronofsky is clearly attempting to construct in the first half of this narrative with his idiosyncratic characters is an absurdist drama founded upon alienation. Alienation, or the alienation effect, is a concept belonging to Bertolt Brecht, and it essentially describes a play or story (a movie even) that is so obviously contrived - that is so obviously a constructed story - that an audience is disengaged from its fantastical illusions and forced to question what is happening. Storytellers use this technique to essentially give audience a slap and to tell them to pay attention. I am not a big fan of this technique.

One of the most diabolical proponents of the alienation effect is the French New Wave director that most will know, Jean-Luc Godard, and I pretty much despise every single movie of his that I have seen because of this. Godard's pretence manifests itself through alienation as he believed that people don't know how to, or simply do not, watch movies correctly. In an attempt to correct our misguided ways, Godard breaks all the rules of cinema that he can conceive of. Unfortunately, however, he has very little to say after managing this.

Alienation isn't all bad, however. One of my favourite director's, Yorgos Lanthimos, utilises alienation in all of his films to construct absurd worlds that we, by virtue of their absurdity, can't help but question. Lanthimos then represents, in my view, how to do alienation: it is not about breaking the fourth wall, but deconstructing a fourth wall to tell a new kind of story.

Coming back to Aronofsky's Mother, we see alienation being used in the first half to merely break rules. In the second half, however, alienation is used to tell a story in a pretty original way. (However, let it be noted that the surreal sequences in the back end of Mother feel very much like those in Requiem For A Dream and even use similar techniques: shifting sets and a trembling frame). For the fact that Aronofsky fails to build believable, complex and true archetypes in his opening act, I really didn't like the first hour. Instead of trusting us to handle the jump from drama into surreal drama as he does in Requiem For A Dream, Aronofsky uses a facade of mystery to construct a weak alienating drama that has the latter half suffer because there is no strong character base.

With my gripes put to the side, the first half of Mother builds upon the discussed ideas of false saviours and tortured idols by establishing a broken relationship between the woman and the man through his first fans. The man of this fan couple signify the man (Javier Bardem) to be vain. The fact that this man and his wife are so rude, assuming and disgustingly open with their 'love' thus signify what isn't in the wife and husband's relationship - which is, to a normal person, a good thing. Moreover, this couple represent a base, animalistic, rebellious pairing; troubling candidates for Adam and Eve positions. Nonetheless, the husband accepts their love and openness and, in turn, opens up - not his home - but his wife's home to them.

This is the subtextual crux of the entire film. The husband is, in essence, a child. He interfaces with the world as if everything and everyone is his loving mother and he, simply by shining the brilliant light of his being, is their beloved son. This relationship is, using Freudian language, an oedipal one, and it is predicated on a mother taking too much care of her son. Whilst this is classically shown to destroy the son first and foremost, within Mother, it is the oedipal mother who suffers the utmost; who not only bears the brunt of the tragedy that comes her way, but has to carry the weight of her husband's - and in turn, the world's - problems on her shoulders.

If the wife is at any fault in this film, she facilitates this oedipal relationship. There is a tension throughout the narrative, however, between her passivity and her victim-hood - and Aronofsky does not handle this well. In such, the wife remains silent and submissive whilst things are going awry in her house. It is never made clear, however, whether or not she is caught in a whirlwind of events that she cannot stop (during the more cohesive parts of the film, this is what you sense) or if she is merely, and incomprehensibly, watching things go by when a normal person would have put a stop to things much sooner (this is the main issue with characterisation in the first hour). Nonetheless, with the husband as a child, his wife becomes a mother. This seems to be one reason why the two do not have sexual relations, and, because the husband sees the entire world as his loving mother, the wife eventually falls short for him: she cannot provide him with enough love and attention.

The vanity that the fan couple symbolise within the husband is now clear; they love him more than he probably deserves, and he relishes in this. Now, however, it seems, that biblical undertones arise. This new couple's sons seem to be Cain and Abel - just consider the way in which one brother kills another out of jealousy. This leaves the couple to be Adam and Eve, who walk obnoxiously in the garden of Eden alongside a benevolent God and absent (ignored) female archetype. There may then rest some heavy criticism of religion in this film - a criticism that becomes far more apparent in the latter half. The criticisms Mother has of religion seemingly concern the manner in which the female is neglected by the Christian mythos and, historically, has been abused by its doctrines. It may even suggest that the Garden of Eden should be thought of as a female archetype - a striking idea. There isn't too much clarity on this front, however. Whilst I think the idea that biblical stories hold too few female archetypes is evident in this narrative, I'm not sure where this critique ends and an audience's prejudice's begin. In such, if you wanted to see them as such, the overwhelmingly harrowing and disturbing scenes of abuse (there are very few cinematic sequences that have made me want to look away from the screen and Mother holds one of them) can be seen as a critique of all religious structures. However, in contrast to this, the scenes of abuse and religious anarchy can also be seen as a commentary on the bastardisation of religion.

So, coming back to the couple as Adam and Eve and their sons as Cain and Abel, we can see them to catalyse a movement towards a critique of religion, or, a critique of vanity with religious stories. I see sense in the idea that the couple and their children aren't used as mere religious fanatics, but that they signify the building of a broken cult. As a result, after one brother murders another, we see the decedents of Cain enter the house and poison the world. Interestingly, there is no Great Flood that wipes out the house invaders. The sink that explodes is then a mere MacGuffin as it finally has the wife burst out as she should have done so much earlier in the day, but fails in repelling evil from the world. With the husband as a Christ or God-like figure (the New and Old Testament are seemingly jumbled), he takes on the burdens of this world with love and compassion - Aronofsky, of course, contemporises this commentary on the anarchistic world in the powerful sequence in which the house becomes hell.

There are major problems with the husband's compassion as he watches the world turn to hell. There is no 'wrath of God' to eliminate evil in Mother as there is in the bible that distinguishes good from evil through the Great Flood. With the husband as a God or messiah without wrath, we have a formula for annihilation: benevolent, omnipotent weakness. And so though many people see Old Testament stories as rather brutal, in the context of Mother, we see a few of them referenced as commentary on our oedipal theme.

Without initial wrath - without being able to recognise the insanity in his followers and kick them out of his home - the husband is weak, and thus his wife carries his burdens and his religion destroys her meaninglessly. Exploitation is then the core of the second part of this movie; the wife is perceived to be a Great Mother who will carry the world's problems and love unconditionally - a benevolent God's comforter - but, she is only perceived as such so that she may be exploited by the selfish children of a false God. This is why theft and disrespect are rampant throughout this narrative: the wife is seen to be a receptacle of infinite love, welcome and forgiveness: a fake, oedipal, female archetype.

There are some loose parallels made between the fan wife - the Eve archetype - and our protagonist, her, upon such a concept. The fan wife seems to be a willing servant of her husband; she starts out seemingly like a traditional housewife, but her servitude becomes absurd. Is she then what the wife's husband (Bardem) expects her to be? Is she introduced into the cycle of his exploitation at every turn, and is she then placed here for the sake of reflection? I cannot find a way to confidently analyse the fan wife's role in this narrative in much depth as I believe she is a rather weak, underutilised archetype. So, whilst there may be more to said, I will leave these as open questions whilst we jump towards the end.

There needs to be no close analysis - unless it is of meticulous detail - of this film's religious allusions and themes of exploitation as they are very evident and powerfully projected in the second and third act. When we arrive to the latter half of the third act, however, we are again asked if this is a film about the bastardisation of religion, or the inherent corruption of religion. In such, we have to ask if Aronofsky's allusions to religion are a commentary on ideas of sacrifice, Christian virtue and God's yearning for love that are, in reality, only a mere facade for misogyny and patriarchal abuse, or, if Aronfky's religious allusions comment on - as we have thus far discussed - false messiahs and abused idols.

If the former is true, if Aronofsky uses this film to comment on misogyny stemming from religion, then the ending, the restarting of a cycle after the wife destroys everything, suggests that religion will always be corrupt and will always lead to anarchy unless it (the husband as God or Christ) is destroyed. I personally see no weight in this reading as it projects a rather bland statement that shows no convincing understanding of religious meta-narratives. Moreover, I'm not sure that Aronofsky - having made a plethora of statements about the film's allegorical nature by now - would intend for this.

The ending of this film and the implied cycle that exists beyond it may have a closed loop. To close the loop, it seems that an oedipal relationship needs to be struck down. Seeing a new wife wake up, there is then a tinge of hope for change. And considering that Aronofsky comments on both female archetypes and, as he claims, Mother Nature in general, we can see this film to be a warning that false messiahs - not just the idea of God or Christ, but a particular, broken type - must be recognised and overcome. Ultimately, this narrative seems to not just be an allegory about the book of Genesis, but an analysis of its key themes that repeat in a plethora of other stories - all of which come together within Mother in an attempt to reduce a global idea of a saviour down to an individual person. The real task of this film is then seeing the individual in the archetypes of Him, her and the plethora of other characters. Not only is it then crucial to understand what these figures say about us, but also how they can again become normal people.

As said, for the characters of this film to overcome their hubris, the oedipal relationship between man and wife, God and Mother Nature, must be destroyed. The self-fulfilling false prophet, God and Christ, the grandiose father and the son, needs to become a man, a husband and a real father. The tortured idol and the oedipal mother needs to find her voice and found a joint wrath in her relationship that does not destroy the world, but preserves it whilst burning away the dead wood of their Eden. Just as much a cry as it is an answer "mother!" is then, potentially, about waking up from the maternal nightmare.

Because of the allegorical nature of this film, its commentary can be mapped onto any circumstance in which we see males abusing power and women suffering - silenced, or in silence. It would then not surprise me if someone read this film to be about pollution, capitalism, sexual abuse scandals, or even see it to be a commentary on political figures. There is greater scope to this film that should be emphasised, however. If we understand the depths of the archetypes, we can see a raw commentary on paradigmatic vanity, idolisation and oedipal weakness that transcends the realm of the individual and collective.

So, though Aronofsky, Lawrence and a plethora of others have tried to lay Mother bare by explaining some of the key symbols, I'll end by asking you what your thoughts are on this movie beyond all that you have seen within and beyond this post. Is there more depth and intricacy to be seen in Mother?

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Anonymous said...

Great review, I'm glad someone else saw the Oedipal mother/son relationship --- I was sure this was what Aronofsky was going for explicitly until I read some of his commentary on the film and it was never mentioned. In addition to what you've outlined, Eden is the walled garden, which man must venture out of to confront chaos and engage the world. Bardem needs to engage life to find inspiration for his art, but Lawrence yearns to keep him cocooned in a prison of her love, catering to his every need.

What's interesting is that if Aronofsky wasn't going for this intentionally, he subconsciously portrays nature as the Oedipal mother which is ... certainly out of touch with the archetypal interpretation, and I'd argue an ideological portrayal that lacks nuance. But really who knows, the movie was engaging and open to interpretation.

Daniel Slack said...

Thank you very much. I was somewhat disappointed with Aronofsky's commentary. It was quite unnecessary, and seemingly just a means of fending off criticism.

His mixture of mother nature and the oedipal mother is a little confusing I must say - maybe an inadvertent insight into his own character as you suggest. I can't imagine a true archetype of mother nature functioning in the way we see Lawrence's character operate, which leaves me leaning towards the idea that Bardem's character wants to perceive her as mother nature, but interacts with her as if she is an oedipal mother. Maybe this narrative then serves as a form of self-analysis or maybe even an ideologically-bound apology from Aronofsky to someone. Ultimately, I'm still on the fence as you are. This film is certainly an achievement, but I'm not sure how solid it is.