One of the most daring films in Darren Aronofsky’s career, mother! is a damning allegory of the ways in which the female body is used as collateral damage within male discourses of authorship and auteurism, especially those that don’t necessarily announce themselves as masculinist or misogynist at first glance. Set in a strange, notional, abstracted domestic space – a house in the middle of an apparently endless field of wheat and trees – the screenplay revolves around two characters simply entitled “Him” and “mother,” whose relationship plays out as an examination into what ensues in a world where being a woman automatically makes someone a mother, and being a man automatically makes someone a writer. At first, Aronofsky restricts the action to Him and mother’s domestic rapport, which basically consists of Him continually trying to break through the sophomore slump and release something worthy of his debut volume of poetry, while mother wanders around the house in a dazed, dream state, encountering one hallucinatory spectacle after another. It’s only a matter of time, however, before people start to arrive at the house – first, a wandering traveller, played by Ed Harris, who is simply credited as “man,” who initially looks to simply be in need of a place to stay, but turns out to be one of Him’s greatest fans, who has made the pilgrimage to meet his icon as he battles terminal illness. After a while, the trio are joined by “woman,” man’s wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer; then man and woman’s family; and then, as the second and third act start to fall into place, a whole panorama of other bodies, who alternatively flood and recede from Aronofsky’s eerie mise-en-scenes.
Before we even get to that point, however, mother! is fixated with the relationship between Mother and her house, with much of the opening half hour following her she wanders from one room to the next, and to the door and back again. As might be expected, that makes for an extremely tactile, textural, haptic film, so redolent of Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath that the appearance of Pfeiffer forty minutes in is all but a foregone conclusion. Over this opening act, Aronofsky builds a consummate sense of atmosphere and place, thanks in part to all the creaky sounds of old-fashioned fixtures and appliances, whose analog gurgling just enhances the uncanny sense that this house is somehow displaced from time and space. Only the fire alarm seems to have been digitally upgraded, which is no small detail given that the film opens with a woman burning, and with Him appearing to restore the house from a charred husk to a domestic utopia with the aid of a crystal that he recovered from the fire. We subsequently discover that this blaze destroyed his family home, and that mother helped him to rebuild it, although the exact nature of this restoration – and its connection to his writing – remains unclear at this early stage. What is clear is that mother shares some visceral connection with the house that she has helped to rebuild, and which she communes with largely by touch, to the point where the architecture of her home comes to feel indiscernible from the architecture of the film itself. From scene to scene, she is continually resting her hands on objects, and caressing the walls, and yet these gestures all feel derivative in some way as well, enabled by the recurring spectacle of Him resting his hands on his sheet of blank paper – the spectacle that opens the film and perpetually punctuates Mother’s explorations of her domestic sphere and embodied self.
In the process, the walls of the house, and the textures of mother’s body, are gradually fused into a single affective surface that somehow appears to be at the mercy of Him’s pen, although the connection also explains why Him has struggled to write a second volume of poetry too, since the medium he is trying to write in and through is in some sense all around him, defying his ability to capture and embed it on the literal page before him. In lieu of any more conventional character-driven tension, Aronofsky structures the first part of the film around this push-and-pull, with mother’s very existence always seeming on the verge of being subsumed into Him’s pen, but Him also never quite managing to co-opt mother’s sensory tissue onto the page in front of him either. Paired with Aronofsky’s muted tones, which imbue every scene with a twilight dimness, mother is therefore half-written, existing halfway between her conception of herself and Him’s efforts to co-opt her into his literary output. As the opening act proceeds, mother continually tests the elasticity of her relationship with Him (and, specifically, just how far she can stray from his writing study), but finds that the only other point of identification in her world in the house itself, which of course just collapses her even more emphatically back into Him’s page and canvas. If mother stays too close to Him she risks losing herself, but the further she departs back into the depths of the house the closer she seems to come to him as well, inducing Lawrence to put in the most blankly reactive performance of her entire career, in what often feels like an adaptation of a sandbox survival horror game as much as a deftly revisionist psychodrama.
If mother is an avatar, however, it’s unclear just who or what is commanding her, even if it is equally clear that the house around her is also somehow at the mercy of this strange agency. As a result, mother! is not about the twist of gradually, subliminally recognising that we are inhabiting a psychological space, or a psychological drama – it’s not that kind of film – so much as the way in which Aronofsky precludes the critical distance from which we might make and appreciate that assessment in the first place. Rather, the drama here comes from the way in which every effort mother makes to insist on her bodily autonomy within the house ends up just reiterating how trapped she is in her own body, as well as how trapped we are within her own body, a paradox encapsulated in the single-tracking shot that constitutes the film. While this shot may be broken and reconstituted from time to time, we never really leave it, and while it initially might seem to betoken quite a fluid and liberating sense of space, the fact that there is nothing to compare it against means that it quickly becomes an index of constriction rather than liberation, never permitting us to move more than a metre or so from mother’s body and proprioceptive horizons. As this tracking-shot reveals its true nature, it becomes clear that it is mother’s body, specifically, that forms the contested space within the household, with every effort that she makes to dissociate it from Him’s writing just reiterating how much Him’s writing is an effort to contain her body in the first place, if only indirectly (at first) through its continuity with the house around him.
What ensues, in this first act, is a struggle for embodiment, as mother continually glimpses a part of her body that remains unprocessed, unwritten and in excess of any way in which it can be be understood or contained by the house around her, as well as by Him as the author of that house. It’s at this point that Aronofsky really seems to acknowledge his possible complicity in the situation he is depicting, since his muted cinematography and exquisite sense of space tend to act in Him’s favour, reiterating mother’s subsumption into the corridors and rooms that she traverses. Accordingly, as a counterpoint, Aronofsky offers a series of exclamatory eruptions of corporeality, from both mother and the house, whose absurdity and shlockiness cuts across the seamless atmospherics that threaten to collapse both into one perfectly toned page for Him to make his mark upon. While these sequences reiterate the connection between mother and the house, they do so in such a way as to preclude any straightforward identification between them, as mother finds herself unable to quite recognise her body in the house, or to recognise the house in her body. The effect, however, is not quite that of distantiation, or alienation in a modernist sense, but of estrangement, with every new texture, orifice, rhythm and mood evoking a bodily experience that refuses to correlate with mother’s body as it has been represented to her.
Of course, that has a certain comic potential as well, and much of the comedy of the film stems from this disconnection between mother’s dawning prescience of her own physiology and physiognomy, and the story that starts to play out in the background, to which she becomes a more or less captive spectator. As the second act starts to get into gear, this subsidiary film focuses largely on man and woman’s relationship with Him and mother, and especially with their continual queries into the status of mother as mother, a reasonable question given that there is nothing at all in the film so far to suggest why she has been given this title. As woman and mother’s discussions grow more heated and involved, it becomes clear that if mother is permitted to have a body, let alone a character, it’s only by way of her relation to motherhood, even as it becomes ever harder to discern exactly what this relation entails in her particular case. Whether she once had a child, can’t have a child, doesn’t want to have a child, or has resigned herself to not having a child, her movements throughout the house are retrospectively framed as an effort to avoid defining herself either against or in terms of motherhood, even if those movements always run the risk of collapsing her into the linguistic medium – the very possibility and conditions for language – that constitutes Him’s efforts to conceive of her in terms of motherhood in the first place.
Beyond a certain point, then, it becomes impossible for mother to speak, or inhabit language, without orienting herself with respect to motherhood. Yet, in the process, the house’s inchoate eruptions become a kind of language of their own, especially as they tend to vaginalise every space and transform every threshold into an abstracted concatenation of the female reproductive system that bleeds and throbs out from Him’s immaculate pages like a reproach to everything language contains, contours and represses. So identified is the film with the house, however, that this language is unable to protect mother from the consequences of her failure to articulate a clear orientation to motherhood, as she finds her body punished by situations that leave the other characters utterly untouched, and in fact seem to merely empower them further. As man and woman’s children arrive on the scene, the house is flooded with murder, mutilation, assault, self-harm and sexual violence, and yet it’s mother’s body that feels more and more traumatically present, as the rapidly multiplying and accelerating bodily traumas of the other characters serve to contour their exemption from the bodily burden weighing down on mother’s shoulders – a burden so intense that the other characters may as well be disembodied by comparison, as indeed they often seem to be, existing in an utterly fictitious space of Him’s own artistic creation.
What ensues from this point is not exactly a specific narrative, but not exactly “anarrative” or non-narrative either. Instead, Aronofsky offers something like the general or grand narrative that is played out upon the surface of women’s bodies whenever they are co-opted, controlled and contained by a male artistic gaze – especially a gaze that promises to bring their talents, abilities and capacities to some kind of gestation they would be unable to achieve on their own. It’s not surprising, then, that mother! has caused such consternation amongst film critics, since part of its genius is the way in which it overidentifies with what is, after all, the standard middlebrow mode of figuring gender relations, making it very difficult to assign it to either a lowbrow recreation or a highbrow deconstruction of a single or identifiable genre. Indeed, as the second act proceeds, it’s hard not to see something of this critical response pre-empted in the sea of bodies that flood the house, all of whom tell mother what to do with her body, even as the very act of telling her seems to render them more liberated from their own, and more privileged in their liberation. As they fill the house, they leave less and less space for mother while somehow opening up more space for Him, finally forcing them into each other’s presence, and then into each other’s bodies, as they make love for the first time since the opening of the film.
In a single supernaturally accelerated sequence, Aronofsky now provides a bridge to the third act, or the beginning of the third act, depending upon how you look at it. Within what appears to be a single day, mother falls pregnant, Him finds himself able to write again and the house returns to its normal state, as all its sentience subsides into a naturalism that in some ways is even more uncanny than the psychodrama of the opening two acts. By the time the day has arrived at its close, mother has reached the cusp of his pregnancy, Him has sent off his next masterpiece, and the two are about to consolidate it all with a perfect dinner. At that very moment, however, the mass of bodies returns, this time in the form of a horde of literary fans who converge at the door to congratulate Him on his book, which appears to have been published. If the film has a “twist” in the conventional sense, then this is it, since it becomes suddenly clear that Him’s words and mother’s pregnancy haven’t liberated her from her body, but have instead merely intensified all the claustrophobic confinement that they initially promised her to assuage. In other words, Him’s language momentarily “frees” mother from her body, only to trap her twice as emphatically, as she turns from the mass of adorers on the doorstep to find that they have colonised the house in the split second that her back was turned: “It’s my house” “The poet says its everyone’s.”
It’s at this exact moment that mother starts to go into labour, but instead of assisting her Him now turns to the crowd, who are lining up to get autographs for his latest masterpiece. As Aronofsky cuts between mother and Him, it’s clear that Him is signing off on the pregnancy itself, or even claiming it as his sole achievement, so synonymous has it become with his newfound creative fertility and fecundity. Meanwhile, mother finds herself more and more infantilised, more and more fused with foetus she is carrying, until it feels as if her real ambition, all along, has been to give birth to herself, and to escape her own body in one single splendid fusion of life and death. For all that she might be defined and constrained by her pregnancy, it’s paradoxically only because of how emphatically her husband claims it as his victory, as the crowd consolidates, a sea of cameras flash, and the party music kicks into overdrive. By the time the baby is crowning, Him has taken on the bearing of a deified paternal icon, as fans bless each other with his poetry (“his words are yours”) and pilgrims line up to bathe in the glow of his beneficent fertility. In one stunning, summative tableau, Him cups his hand over mother’s eyes and mouth to impart his blessing to her, even as she places her hands on her pregnant stomach. As the power of her pregnancy passes into his speech, and as his speech stands in for her own sight and speech, her body completely collapses, as do the bodies of those around her, with only Him standing strong as the police force arrive in the birthroom in order to amplify and reiterate his newfound law and order.
For my part, I can’t think of a recent film I’ve seen in which the constitutive dependence of discourse itself on female blindness and silence has been so eloquently and disturbingly rendered, along with its perpetuation through heteroaesthetic divisions of labour, in what can only be called a heterophobic film, so scathing and uncompromising is the crystalline clarity of its vision. This only intensifies over the rest of the third act, as Him’s supreme occupation of paternal discourse proliferates an even more expansive swathe of bodies throughout the house, eventually breaking the house open into all the diverse fields and spaces that have shaped history by way of the assurance and arrogation of the authoritative masculine voice, as we move through fascism, world war, revolution, communism and, finally, the threat of a genocide that Him has to negotiate and forestall as messiah to a world that his own words have brought into existence.During this entire incredible sequence, mother is giving birth, as Aronofsky provides something like a potted history of the most violent moments of the twentieth century as so much collateral damage to the concessions demanded by the cult of fatherhood, and the insatiability of the paternal voice. Lest his own auteurism be collapsed into and complicit with this vision, this is also the moment at which Aronofsky utterly throws good taste and aesthetic decorum to the wind, burying even the most residual coordinates of the house beneath the most excessive, absurd, tasteless, preposterous and self-consuming sequence of his entire career to date.
No surprise, then, that mother gives birth to a boy – even if it was a girl, it would be a boy – nor that Him demands to carry him out to display to the masses gathering outside their bedroom, despite mother’s very reasonable desire for some private time to recuperate with their son, and her concerns about his safety and wellbeing. Yet it’s these very displays of maternal concern that tip Him into total monstrosity, as forcibly seizes the child from mother and takes him out to display as the pinnacle of his poetic achievement. While he may justify himself by asserting that “I’m his father!” it’s mother’s response – “I’m his mother!” – that gives the film its title, since this is the only point in the entire two hours that she comes up with anything resembling an exclamatory or ejaculatory utterance. In her desperation, she has finally realised that Him is prepared to destroy his son in order to become a father, and to sacrifice his son to his own cult of paternity if it means intensifying the virility of his paternal voice. As it turns out, this is exactly what happens, as Him spontaneously offers up the baby to the altar that they crowd have constructed for him, and then hands out the baby’s body parts to the crowd, so that they can literally eat his words.
Of course, the crowd’s devotion to Him can’t exist without their disavowal of mother, and so as she tries to save what remains of her child the masses turn back upon her, threatening to tear her body apart until Him steps in to save them from her clutches. If the sacrifice revealed Him’s monstrosity, then this scene reveals how quickly that monstrosity can be subsumed back into normality, as he cradles mother in his arms and reassures her that everything is going to be alright, consoling her for the infanticide he dictated in the first place, and more secure than ever in his paternal protectionism with his wife reduced to a quivering heap in his arms. As so many critics have noted, his insistence that “we need to find a way to forgive them,” and the entire sacrificial sequence, plays as something of an irreverent riff on Christianity, and a kind of companion piece to Noah in its wry disregard for the animating values of American culture. Yet to frame mother! as a satire of Christianity is to perhaps miss its power, since the point here is that Christianity is just one iteration of a logocentric male discourse that can’t and won’t be subsumed into one single ideology, with Aronofsky’s magnificent historical recap suggesting that every conceivable position along the political spectrum has been enthralled by this charismatic paternal mouthpiece at one point or another, even especially when they consider themselves to have transcended it.
For all the consolations of Him’s voice, however, there is one final gesture of resistance, with mother screaming “It’s time to get the fuck out my house!” Yet by this late stage, there’s an inevitable, reflexive impotence to mother’s words and actions, since her story has already been written and her body has already been processed. It’s strangely anticlimactic, then, when the house burns down and consumes her, while even the penultimate image of Him recovering her from the ash and pulling a restored foetus out of her charred belly feels oddly disembodied and detached. What is horrifying is Him’s final justification – “I create. That’s what I do. That’s what I am.” – as his capacity for creation is collapsed into his need for destruction, and fatherhood is finally, inexorably, defined as the compulsion to destroy and remake the world over and over again. As the foetus morphs into the crystal we saw at the beginning of the film, the power of mother’s pregnancy restores the house once more and we see Him facing another blank page, this time with a new wife by his side. In its implications and elegance, it’s a daringly auteurist way to conclude, and yet it’s the shlockiness of the special effects, and the cheesiness of the crystal, that forms the real closing note, since by once again undercutting his auteurist aspirations at this final moment, Aronofsky reminds us that the world that Him has reconstructed, the world that Him depends on reconstructing for his very identity, can never be completely convincing.