On gods, creators, artists, artist-gods, and creator-gods in Aronofsky's mother!
mother! Paramount Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Stephen McHattie, Jovan Adepo and Chris Gartin
Rated R / 2 hours, 1 minute / 2.35:1
September 15, 2017
(out of four)
It seems so emphatic, that title. So definitive. mother! The lowercase styling makes it seem all the more violent, somehow. How definitively it describes the movie it represents ... well, that's another story. The title is specific, yet encompasses far too much for any description to contain. Which is just as well for a movie whose ideas and experiments constantly threaten to overrun themselves, chasing a chaotic narrative momentum that seems to gain a mind of its own.
Writer/director Darren Aronofsky could have chosen a handful of other titles and still been referring to the same things, the same figure(s). god! artist! muse! martyr! creator! All of those - and mother!, too - possess diverse meanings and contradictions, each role wrapping around the next until you don't know where the creator ends and the destroyer begins. The film's beginnings and endings are blurred - mirrored, reversed, obscured, interchangeable - as a standard operating principle. Aronofsky is more than comfortable teetering on the brink between complete narrative and tonal disarray and his own artistic sense of order; his is a delicate chaos, and our reward is a savage mosaic of competing and complementary allegories.
Of course, more than usual even, his presence - as the artist/creator - is directly relevant to the substance of the movie. Meta without being (necessarily) specific, mother! revolves around an artist (in this case a poet, played by Javier Bardem) struggling to find inspiration, living in a large house out in the middle of nowhere with his (younger) wife, played by Aronofsky's real-life girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence. When he finally puts pen to paper, someone - a distant neighbor? a spontaneously created character? - knocks at the door. From then on, the (happy?) couple will never be alone in that house again, the sudden arrival of a dying doctor (Ed Harris) merely the start of a snowballing cast of visitors that transform the house from an eerily peaceful sanctuary to, gradually, an anarchic existential battleground.
I don't want to get too far into the narrative specifics, if only because the way the film opens up and evolves is among the most deliriously thrilling experiences I've had at the movies in some time. So I'll try to tap-dance around it as much as possible. When that knock first arrives - again, just after the poet has started writing again - it seems like we know what direction things are going. And we sorta do, except Aronofsky isn't finished yet, and the storytelling device we know he's using is mere prologue to a bolder experiment.
It's probably not coincidental that mother! is his follow-up to his Biblical epic Noah, which - among other things - garnered criticisms by some for referring to its almighty only as Creator. Regardless of those gripes, "Creator" was the appropriate word, and this time around, he's doubled - if not quintupled - down on his examinations of creation, destruction, the forms in which both instincts manifest, and the impulses and patterns that govern them. Religious symbolism abounds once mother!'s chaos is in full swing, but it's framed entirely in different terms ... and those terms are framed, in turn, differently still. To whatever extent we can see Bardem's writer character as a stand-in for a god, he's much more potent as fodder for a brutally funny satire about artists as self-mythologized gods. That doctor who inexplicably arrived that night? Of course he turns out to be a huge fan of the great poet's work. How better to feed one's ego - or rather, manufacture the justification for one's ego - than to create a loyal fan out of thin air? mother! is not just a genius myth - made by someone who's no doubt had no shortage of fawning admirers asserting his own genius - but probably as self-aware and self-deprecating a genius myth as one could conjure.
The hubris and delusions of grandeur of the creator - who in this case follows a number of Great Artist cliches, like living in solitude, or having a much younger wife (a fact that does not go unnoticed; the doctor quips, with some admiration, "I thought she was your daughter!") - is squarely in the sights of Aronofsky, the one-man firing squad, who for all we know is symbolically firing at himself. We can't be sure what he's inventing completely and what he's embellishing about his own experience as a celebrated celebrity film director, but it's hard not to assume he's coming at the material with some measure of expertise. I hope this doesn't come across as a knock, or as some complaint about navel-gazing or "self-indulgence" (one of the worst and most irrelevant of all artist critiques). Quite the opposite. The circular creative, experiential and emotional logic is one of the things that makes this movie great. There seems to be genuine (if good-humored) anger in a sequence during which He gets swept up in a surreal tumult of camera flashes, paparazzi, hangers-on, personal lackeys and desperate admirers after the publication of his latest opus - and it's an anger that feels personal. My immediate thought was, Uh, maybe we should just leave Aronofsky alone for a while.
The film plays out in what feels like two long scenes - two long, increasingly frantic breaths - one before the couple has sex, and one after their agonizing, months-long period of celibacy and/or impotence has come to an end. The end of his creative dry spell begins during an aggressive, spiteful encounter with Her on the staircase, and continues in a post-coital haze as - having just created an heir - he is finally able to write again. Finally able to create the masterpiece he has been searching for his entire life. The masterpiece that will surely change the world. (Or, at least, that's what artists tell themselves, isn't it.) For all intents and purposes, these acts of creation are one and the same. For that matter, everything in the movie is an act of creation or a direct reaction to it. Both Lawrence and Bardem's characters are godlike, in different ways. (It's easy to lump her just into the category of the artist's muse, but the film makes clear her role as Creator - and beyond just the creation growing inside her.)
Moment to moment, the film's energy and equilibrium shifts, to the extent that our very notion of the film's internal logic - even its genre - is constantly up in the air. What begins as a sort of dark but ethereal mood piece turns into a blisteringly uncomfortable comedy of manners. Bit by bit its shifts in tone speed up, and speed up again, and by the second half it is a full-scale stream-of-consciousness epic, ferocious in its filmmaking and beautifully twisted in its unrelenting sense of humor. It's that sense of humor that I find most apparent and most resonant about mother! Aronofsky doesn't get enough credit for being the terrific satirist that he is. It genuinely bums me out when people don't realize how hilarious he can be. His Black Swan took the form of tragedy, but brilliantly satirized the likes of artistic narcissism and competition, and indulged/poked at the macabre absurdities, sexual dynamics and heightened psychological states of melodrama itself. That movie had a mania all its own, yet mother! manages to outdo it with a propulsive, untethered madness that makes Black Swan look quaint by comparison.
Early in his career, one of Aronofsky's signatures was his use of the SnorriCam - with the camera is mounted to the actor, a technique he used extensively in Pi and Requiem for a Dream. With mother!, he uses a lot of handheld camerawork, but often keeps that camera fixed on Lawrence's face or her immediate surroundings, capturing a limited and claustrophobic point-of-view that only increases as the world around her - inside her own home - devolves into chaos. It's interesting to see the way he's modified his language to create a similar sort of limited visual perspective. The captivity of that camerawork, and of the movie's single location, works wonders.
With heavy shades of Buñuel, von Trier, Ken Russell and Terry Gilliam - among others - mother! nonetheless remains a singular work that seems to subvert and surprise even itself, and its creators.
The act of creation - whether it's religious, artistic, biological, ecological or otherwise - is often expressed in sacred terms, and the religious totems and references throughout the film put a fine point on that. But nothing in mother! is sacred - at least not permanently so. The film's savagely conceived and brilliantly funny cycles of possession, ownership and consumption are built into its very structure, and at the root of a foundation designed to crumble and rise and crumble again. Ashes to ashes.