Mother!, the film by Darren Aronofsky starring Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, is a visceral, bloody and utterly gutting condemnation of art as partriarchy and patriarchy as art. Unspooling as a haunting and complex allegory, the film depicts with rare insight and subtlety how female generosity is exploited, desecrated and destroyed again and again by the never-satisfied male ego.
Of the 3 sensational films I set out to review this week – the others being Kajillionaire (2020) and Midsommar (2019) this is the oldest, dating to 2017, and also of the three the most reviled and misunderstood, which is saying a lot. All three of three films are essentially allegorical, each exploring the universal through the female particular. Yet whereas Kajillionaire remains true to the real while infusing it with intensely mundane marvels, and Midsommar ports the everyday into the inescapably alien, Mother! instead chooses to blend the real and surreal in a mind-blowing mashup that gains a mad momentum with each new scene, accelerating inexorably towards soulless oblivion. In that sense this film is also the only one of the three that does not conclude with redemption and healing, making it much the darkest.
In Mother! the poet, Javier Bardem is a succubus and egotist, that is to say an impossibly persistent and potent artist. An acclaimed inspirer, a celebrated transformer of worlds, but one lacking humility and wisdom, and beset by selfishness. Not every man is weak, not every man a poet. But collectively men accept their own weakness as a condition of their being. Even as they imagine it as strength. Money, muscles, fast car, power, fame. Mother! emphatically insists it’s all vanity, all violence against beauty, against a new mother’s newborn baby at the breast. And it is. We all know it is. But we men don’t like to be reminded. We have too much invested in ourselves to accept our own bankruptcies. Darren Aronofsky does not care. He wants it to hurt.
Rarely has the palpable power trip of the poet as actor, as visionary, as leader, been so harshly, so ruthlessly exposed. The poet’s act of creation here representing all the acts of all men, all the adventurers hunting for fame, for force, for the flower of youth and the adoring reflection of young beauty. Aronofksy and Bardem get it exactly right. The careening desperation in the absence of purpose, the insatiable appetite, the passionate yet empty reassurances, the million minor betrayals, the conviction that because it satisfies his own need his work must be of supreme importance to others, the all-consuming need to be needed, and adored.
And here too we find the followers, the sheeple, the fans and consumers, the devotees, acolytes and enforcers, the parasitical bitches who prefer hell to sisterhood, the murderous mob celebrating the sainted hero, the blind seer ready and willing to sacrifice her again and again. Mother! His muse, lover and keeper who holds his home in her heart, bleeding with it as he wrecks it with his futile will. Yet still she perseveres, protecting her world with love and courage in the face of violence and madness, from the many intimate fascisms of male need.
Mother! features remarkable encounters, terrifying tragedies and wretched perversions as well as extraordinary performances, none as sad, superb and soul-searing as that of the incessantly defiled yet never defeated Jennifer Lawrence. A difficult but rewarding movie, Mother! is awful to watch as a man and as a poet. My wife Annie found it tough too, to see the failures of feminism so profoundly distilled, and the challenges of accompanying an engaged artist so vividly reflected. But this film needs seeing.
Don’t be fooled by the misleading trailer or the trippy creepiness of this movie into thinking this is merely another wild Netflix ride. This is not drama, it is ritual. Mother! brutally enacts the greedy catharsis of patriarchy upon the female body. As it does so it reignites scars that criss-cross our own bodies, male and (far more so) female, and we feel again the burning shame, the burning anger, the burning truth that weak men take and strong women give. Mother! is lightly clothed in horror film tropes not because it is a half-assed horror film but because – Aronofsky is telling us – this truth is a horrorshow – one that will burn us all alive in the end. (Not incidentally the film is also a powerful allegory for man’s terminal desecration of Mother Earth.)
For one brief moment in Mother! the world deigns to listen to Jennifer Lawrence, turning its spiteful eye upon her and demanding language. She is nearly speechless under the sudden spotlight, but not quite, managing three small words, the words of every mother, everywhere threatened by overlarge male egos:
“For your child”
But why – if the poet is guilty as charged – was Aronofsky moved to make his film in the first place? Surely he is aware of this paradox at its heart, that if the male ego in action is inevitably criminally egotistical, that Aronofsky is himself re-enacting that fatal crime through this film? Could the fact of his film’s existence be an argument that self-conscious male creativity can be genuinely constructive? That the work of honouring the divine female – not as an abstract remote muse but as a living, fighting, feeling mother, is a worthy act? Perhaps the only necessary, the only worthy act?
I’d like to think so as I sit and write this commentary. I’d like to cling to my possibly vain hope that Hollywood will implode and Trump will choke to death on his vileness and swords will be beaten into ploughshares and we will save our Mother Earth if we but side with truth and love, if we but respect our mothers, listen to our mothers and daughters. Or is that yet another male conceit, another excuse to see my name in lights? (Dim though they may be on this remote blog.) Are we – Aronofsky and I, men who act, men who create – even justified in speaking at all?
Am I giving or taking in writing this reflection? I have to believe I’m giving, but I can’t pretend this work doesn’t give to me as much as it does to anyone else. Maybe the trick is to to ensure that at the very least it never gives more to me than to it does to you. Or maybe it’s to make sure that however much I write, I do a lot more listening, a lot more giving, and especially to women.
I said at the outset that this film’s conclusion is soullessness, yet perhaps in its exquisitely affecting climax, in which Bardem’s all-consuming egotism is at last perfectly distilled, there lies an implicit invitation, a charge to the viewer, the male viewer in particular, to choose self-sacrifice over murder, for once. Maybe the film does not in the end offer redemption because – Aronofsky is saying – art can never truly do the work of redemption for us, but only through our own actions can we redeem ourselves. And what actions would those be? If Aronofsky’s film offers a way forward it can only be this message, a message men everywhere must take up if we are to survive:
“Don’t listen to me. Listen to her.”