Mother!: An alternate reading of Darren Aronofsky's film as a portrait of anxiety

A personal outlook – and a reminder of the oft overlooked power of subjective perspectives in film

Clarisse Loughrey@clarisselou
Saturday 16 September 2017 14:50


The subjective power of cinema is so deeply undervalued. We get lost in the intellectual clamber to be the “most correct”, to unlock the great puzzle of celluloid. What we ignore is how much our own lives and perceptions shape our viewpoints on film and, in return, how much film can shape us.

It doesn’t get much clearer than when it comes to Darren Arnofosky’s mother!, the ignition for a hundred arguments. An endless tumble of passionate debates. Love it or hate it, we can’t stop talking about it.

In its broadest terms, mother! is a home-invasion movie turned conspiracy blown apart. It opens on a woman, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), and her picturesque marriage. Him (Javier Bardem) is a successful poet toiling away in his office; she funnels her creative energies into transforming the house he once saw burn down in front of his eyes.

Then come the uninvited guests. First one, then another. And another. What it escalates into is almost indescribable in its own insanity. The dream logic that operates here, and the grandiosity of what occurs, makes it clear this all intended as an allegory of some sort. The great hook at the centre of mother!, however, is what exactly that allegory denotes.

Both Aronofsky and his star Lawrence have discussed the film at length in relation to climate change, as a warning against our own destructive tendencies toward nature. Mother is Mother Earth, then, and the house our planet, ripped to shreds by humanity’s relentless desire. Could Him be God himself? “If you think about day six in your history and in your bibles, you’ll kind of figure out where the film starts,” Aronofsky told The Hollywood Reporter. Day six is when God created mankind, and the film opens with Man (Ed Harris) and then Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) visiting the home.

But is this the only allegory to be read out of mother!? Or do works have life and meaning beyond an artist’s direct creative intentions? I’m committed to that answer not only being a yes, but that it’s in this intersection that some of the purest experiences in art can occur: when a film, or a painting, or a song can feel so nakedly personal they become a part of you. It’s as if the silver screen has been transformed into a mirror, or into an echo of our own voice. Not to wrench the film right out of Aronofsky’s hands, but that certainly describes my reaction to mother!.

One intimately connected, without a doubt, to my already standing relationship with a previous work of Aronofsky’s, Black Swan. A film that came to me in a moment of pure emotional crisis: a newly made graduate flung out into the world with nothing but a mountain of crippling self-doubt.

Natalie Portman as Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ (2010)

An experience common to many, but it helped so completely to see myself in Natalie Portman’s Nina, this ultimate symbol of feminine anxiety: driven to the brink by the world’s expectations that she must encompass all things at once. To be both the Black Swan and the White Swan, Madonna and whore, cool girl and princess, an instant success without every visibly trying.

The film hit its mark with such pinpoint accuracy that I was taken aback. It was a genuine wake-up call, the precise jump-start I needed in my long journey of self-comprehension. My own little insight into the power of film and, in that, Aronofsky had offered me something I will forever be thankful for. Of course, those emotions hadn’t dissipated by the time I got to mother!. Maybe they moulded my reaction here, or maybe not, but it felt almost immediately like Aronofsky was speaking to my own anxiety again.

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It’s in the way each guest enters the house like a sharp intrusion, similar to a negative entity invading the brain. Truthfully, that’s exactly what anxiety feels like. When you seek so desperately for tranquillity of the mind, but there’s a constant knocking at the door. More thoughts, more worries barging in. One by one, as the crowd gets louder and louder and louder and louder and louder. It feels like drowning in sound. Mother’s heart begins to pound.

Mother! - Trailer

And so, everything quietly clicked together. It’s made clear the house in mother! is a living organism – whether that be the entire planet or a singular soul – seen in the beating heart trapped within its structure, that Mother can feel when she presses her face against the walls. The house, then, is the brain. Mother, the consciousness. The character of Him, the subconscious. Both together, disparate parts of the mind forever connected – a strange marriage.

But the subconscious remains always out of the consciousness’s control. It’s interesting, then, that Him often drifts away to other parts of the house to conduct conversations with the guests, with Mother only receiving whatever faint wisps make their way down to her. Anxiety can feel like that, too. As if there’s a part of you acting entirely outside of your control. A plotter, opening your mind to the thoughts and emotions you try so desperately to avoid. The subconscious as self-sabotage, making you feel like a ghost in your own home.

The endless visitors act like those negative thoughts, barraging the consciousness while adulating the subconscious’ increasing power. “Why don’t you want kids?” Woman asks. The question seems to stick, since Mother’s later so overjoyed and so hopeful about her pregnancy, an attempt to unify both consciousness and subconscious into some meditative peace. But that union is ill-fated. The blood that seemed to bubble up from the carpet returns. Old wounds never heal and the mind is doomed to be forever fractured.

Black Swan had no hopeful message to leave on – with perfection achieved only through death – and the same is true of mother!. Peace is achieved only through self-obliteration, though it’s here represented as a complete surrender to the subconscious.

A death far less literal, but more cyclical: Mother wakes up right back at the start, the consciousness and subconscious inescapably intertwined. The eternal damnation of the human mind.

‘Mother!’ is out now