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Aronofsky’s mother! Isn’t a Horror Film; It’s an Anxiety Film

I think that mother! is Darren Aronofsky’s best film. I understand, however, why it received mixed reviews when it was released. More than any other film I can think of, one has to watch it in the right way.

That is, if you maintain a certain detachment, or stick to your own point of view, I can easily see how the film might not work for you—particularly if you’re a man. It is essential to experience this work from the perspective of mother herself.

It’s all there for you, if you’re paying attention. It’s in the micro-expressions that flash across Jennifer Lawrence’s face as she plays the role. It’s in her reaction to things—this creep of anxiety that defines the film.

Of course, the whole thing is allegorical. There is no way to read it otherwise. Yet, no matter what Aronofsky or Lawrence has said (and yes, I have read these things) interpretations risk being reductive.

It makes sense, for example, to align mother with Gaia, particularly given that she was both the mother and wife of Uranus. The opening and closing line of the film, after all, refer to Him as “baby.”

We could go down this path, but there are equally ways to go down a Christian one, particularly with reference to the actual baby in the film. “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26)

mother's baby has been eaten

Him is a poet, which means that he works with words. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)

In the Greek, this would be logos. The logos was God, and the logos was with God. What an odd turn of phrase. And what, then, was before the beginning?

There have been various attempts to get at this question through the notion of a Godhead, ranging from the work of Meister Eckhart to Schelling’s Ages of the World, and others. It’s interesting and abstruse stuff.

But when it comes to mother! it is on the right track, but going in the wrong direction.

The woman at the very end of the film (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), as it loops back to what we saw at the beginning, is credited as “foremother.” Thus I would suggest we have not gone forward in “time” but backward. Not that that matters much. It’s a loop; it’s a cycle; it’s the neverending force of creation because “nothing is ever enough. [Him] couldn’t create if it was.”

In short, one could interpret mother! with reference to the ancient Greeks, or Christianity, or perhaps Hinduism, but I want to suggest its themes are even more primordial than that, such that limiting an interpretation to any of these frames would be reductive.

Thje zealots tell mother to come

But speaking of the ancient Greeks, I feel the need to mention the way in which the film brings Plato’s Timaeus to mind for me. Here we get a myth about the creation of the world. Whether Plato would have endorsed it is a tough question, but also one that is largely beside the point.

Timaeus posits that some things always are, without ever becoming (27d6), whereas some things become, without ever being (27d6–28a1). I would suggest that Him is basically the former—he doesn’t really change, but is the same from one iteration to the next. On the other hand, the house is the latter. It is constantly becoming as mother works on it and then it burns down; she works on it, and then it burns down.

Plato, of course, aligns what is unchanging with Ideas, or Forms (eidos). This is the logos we can also align Him with in a certain way. The world itself, though—this sensible reality we engage with—that is always changing, like our fickle opinions (doxa). And, in this sense, it is less real than the unchanging realm of Ideas. The geometrical idea of a triangle will never change, for example, but the pyramids will erode.

Where does mother fit in with all of this?

Well, there is a third notion one finds in the Timaeus: that of chora.

This is what is before the beginning. It’s a kind of formless matter, space, or receptacle for creation. It is the nothing before there was something that isn’t quite nothing. And what is interesting is this thought that there has to be something like that. The something could not have come from nothing, or at least not pure nothing—but maybe something that is sort of like nothing?

Further, chora is decidedly feminine. (Go read some Luce Irigaray.) It’s tied up in all of these archetypes of femininity. It is the Other—the markedly Other—that stands outside of the order imposed by the logos. It is not the irrational, but the non-rational—at least insofar as the rational is binary.

A spot on the floor that mother investigates

There is what makes sense (rationally) and what doesn’t, but that doesn’t cover the spectrum of human experience. There is something else. Call it intuition, if you like. There is emotional intelligence. And there are norms that it would be hard to justify on some kind of strictly rational basis but which still have a force to them.

I used to have a roommate who would leave the cupboard doors open, for example. All of the time, he would just get a dish out or whatever and leave the door open. I found this unconscionable. After he walked away, as I was sitting there on the other side of the room, I felt compelled to pause my TV show or whatever, get up and close that damn cupboard. But I never said anything, because what is my reason here?

And it’s that kind of thing that I think mother! plays with throughout—these infringements on one’s sense of propriety that one can’t quite justify, and how one’s complaints get ignored perhaps precisely for that reason.

This is a film about anxiety. We may not know what precisely that potion mother takes throughout is, but we know what it is for. She takes it when she is freaking out. She takes it when she is having a panic attack.

And the fact that she does so seems pretty relatable to me.

In the opening scenes of the film, she seems pretty alright, but then man (Ed Harris) shows up and disrupts things. He wasn’t expected or anything; he just shows up. Not cool. You have to think about not wanting this unexpected company. Maybe you’re not like me, who would feel it as an imposition. Maybe you’re like Him.

“My wife loves company.”

But her face tells another story:

mother (Jennifer Lawrence) makes a facial expression that expresses her distaste

It’s almost impossible to take a screenshot of the most key elements of mother!—Jennifer Lawrence’s facial expressions. The key moments are all too quick. They are micro-expressions, and you could maybe grab them but just end up with something where her face looks distorted.

The point is, her face says that she does not love company and would like man to go away. But her husband ignores this, or doesn’t see it.

Neither does he see her expression when he tells man and woman later that they want to have kids. Either that, or he doesn’t care.

Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) sees it, though, and this pushes the anxiety forward, as she moves from the intrusion into mother’s physical space into one into her psychological space.

Don’t interrogate the childless about why they don’t have children, whether they want them, and why it hasn’t happened. It’s rude, and I don’t care if it is coming from love or what.  Mind your business!

Don’t basically force a drink on me whether I want it or not, or throw my laundry on the floor, or keep trying to go into a room I’ve told you to stay out of. And close the cupboard door, you savage!

Him conforts man and woman

When they do ultimately go into the room while mother isn’t looking, man and woman break Him’s crystal. He is bereft about that, which is interesting, but it is their response I want to call attention to at present.

They’re sorry. Woman wonders what more mother could want. And I’m sorry, but what this gets to is that sometimes being sorry isn’t good enough. The only thing that would have been good enough is not doing the thing in the first place.

Man, woman, and their sons are general stand-ins for humanity. They’re annoying. They intrude. They provoke anxiety. He’s been smoking inside and is throwing up in the toilet. She’s left the kitchen a mess after making lemonade. But the worst thing is that when you ask Him to help you out, he takes their side.

“I want to thank you for your hospitality. Your husband has been so generous.”

He not only invites these two into your home, but then their everyone after one of their sons has killed the other. The intrusion grows. It doesn’t matter whether it “makes sense” or not. And now they’re up on that sink again and again until it breaks. And the worst part is that no one is listening to you.

No, actually. The worst part is Him, even if you don’t realize it yet. He isn’t listening to you. He isn’t asking you before he makes decisions for you. He just keeps accommodating them. He never loved you. He just loved that you loved him. And now perhaps he feels like these strangers love him more?

That certainly seems to be the upshot once the zealots arrive in the third act. After mother becomes pregnant, he writes something new, and masses of followers arrive. (Let’s also note that he sent it to his publisher before he gave her the chance to read it). They take over the place, because “[t]he poet said it’s everyone’s house” and when the cops arrive they just make things worse.

But, actually, any semblance of reality has gone out the window by the time that happens. And there is no way to dial it back. There is no deflationary reading possible here.

Sure, we could take this as a ramping up of mother’s anxiety and a representation of the panic attack brought on by everything occurring. It would seem she discarded her meds, after all. But that doesn’t really do it, as we see her have her baby, burn the house down, and then it all starts again (albeit with a different actress).

The house is burning in mother!

No, this all has to be read allegorically. The question is: what’s the allegory?

As I noted up top, one could put this into various frames of reference, but I think they all risk reducing the narrative. It’s more archetypal than saying that mother is Gaia, or that man and woman are Adam and Eve, or whatever. Those are interesting things to think about, but I think that mother! goes deeper.

The film thinks about the masculine and the feminine on the cosmic level. We might be tempted to say that these are just social constructs—and meaningfully they are, if we’re thinking about the expectations placed on men and women and so on—but there is a very old tradition that thinks them on the scale of cosmogony.

I don’t know whether there is anything to that or not, but the gender archetypes are there, one way or another.

What we see from Him is a desire to be praised above all else. He doesn’t really listen to his wife. He certainly doesn’t see her micro-expressions, or read them. Or, if he does, he doesn’t care. He is caught up in himself. And while I would never claim that all men are like this, or anything like that, this does seem to me to be a masculine perspective on the world. His primary focus is on his work, even when’s he’s not doing it.

On the other hand, mother’s is on the home. She has put a great amount of work into it, physically, but it also plays on a symbolic register. As it is destroyed, Him says that these are just things that can be replaced. He’s abstracting away, while she is concrete.

But that’s not the point. The point is that she is continually marginalized. There is a reason that mother! is written with a lowercase ‘m’ and an exclamation point.

She is the Mother. She is Gaia. But she’s no longer respected. And Him…perhaps he is God, but he only cares about being worshipped. The zealots kill their son—not out of malice, but out of recklessness—and he wants to forgive them. Why? Not because they knew not what they did, but because he wants them to continue to love him.

This is the allegory, and all of those religious notes should hit. The masculine God doesn’t care about you. Him only cares about being loved by you. And the feminine just isn’t heard. She screams and she isn’t heard. She’s just a bystander to the rape and pillage of her home.

Mother yells that they won't listen

All she can do, ultimately, is rage, as the Earth rages with fire and other calamities. But then it all happens again. mother!

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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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