This post contains spoilers; I thought about it long and hard but was unable to write about Mother! without discussing the ending.
Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film was preceded by a suitably vague trailer that quite effectively, as it turned out, disguises what his film is actually about.
And much of the film, like the trailer, is intriguing because it doesn’t give away what’s going on, what kind of film Mother! is. It trades in many horror film conventions, raising all kinds of expectations: there’s a couple isolated in a house, each with a mysterious past; there’s a house that seems itself to be sentient, alive; there are uninvited guests who quickly turn hostile (is this a home invasion film?); and there’s an uncanny pregnancy (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is one of the principal cinematic touchstones of Mother!). Jennifer Lawrence does a great job of playing the standard “haunted house” protagonist, especially after she becomes pregnant, a woman who may or may not be seeing what’s actually there, may or may not be experiencing hallucinations. Indeed, for much of its run-time, Mother! seems like a gothic horror film, a subgenre that is notable for featuring strong women and feminist themes.
And from beginning to end, Mother! is bound to Jennifer Lawrence’s perspective. Her character does not have a name (none of the characters do) and she is listed in the credits only as “Mother,” but she is the center of this narrative (or she seems to be). The camera is claustrophobically centered on her: much of the film involves either close-ups of her face or tracking shots centered on the back of her head as she moves around the house. The relentlessly tight focus on Lawrence’s face, on her body, on her increasingly frantic and helpless movements made me too feel anxious and trapped—testament, I guess, to what’s good about the film.
There came a point near the end, though, when I realized what this film was actually about, and it made me furious. And I almost never get angry at films (one of the few other films that evoked this response in me was Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris—and that was a long time ago).
From the beginning Lawrence’s relationship with her husband, “Him” (played by Javier Bardem), is disconcerting. Lawrence seems to be confined in the house: no matter what happens, she doesn’t leave, and more than once, she’s left alone even in dangerous situations. She is devoting herself to fixing up the house, which is her husband’s and which was destroyed in a fire: she is rebuilding it, by herself, for him. He invites strangers (more and more of them) to stay at the house without consulting her or seeming to care that it bothers her. And Lawrence herself seems to have no opinions, no thoughts, no aspirations beyond love of her husband, catering to his writing, and restoring his house. Well, she desperately wants to have a child too—but that hasn’t happened yet.
Eventually, though, Lawrence becomes pregnant and Bardem starts to write—writes brilliant poetry that brings hundreds of adoring fans to their door. At this point, the film spins off into veritably surreal territory as hordes of people invade the house, their parties turning into destruction and, finally, in a shocking scene, the horde kills and eats Mother’s baby. The house—and Mother—go up in flames—a scene that is a repetition of the scene that opens the film (though the viewer doesn’t know, at that point, what it means). And then comes the horrifying (and for me) enraging moment when it’s revealed that the whole thing will start again. “Mother” must restore the house, again, cater only to “Him” again, give her body to him again, bear a child and see it sacrificed again, be agonizingly consumed by flames again. Her job is to sacrifice herself over and over so he can achieve what he considers to be “perfection.” The sole purpose of Lawrence’s character, we find out, at the end of the film, is to sacrifice herself for Him.
Now, correct me if you think I’m wrong, but I don’t even see any critical distance here. I don’t see that the film is reflecting on the problems inherent in a woman sacrificing everything about herself—her mind, body, baby, life—for a man, so “He” can create. Many have criticized Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) for its misogyny, but I have always been in the camp that believes the film is actually critiquing the patriarchal control of the world of ballet (and the larger world in which all women are pressured to obsess over their body and appearance). But I see no such self-consciousness here. This is a film that seriously portrays the necessity of “Mother’s” sacrifice so He can create art.
And the film’s form mirrors its content. The camera, as I said, sticks obsessively to Lawrence: she’s always in its sights. And part of the anger I felt near the end was that I realized Lawrence as an actor is being exploited for this film that glorifies a man’s (Aronofsky’s?) need (right?) to create at any cost. Both Lawrence and the character she plays are sacrificial pawns in a man’s game.