Mother! (2017)

*. In 2017 there was a critical and box office success scored by an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Get Out, a revisioning of The Stepford Wives. Basically, Get Out just switched the feminist angle for a racial argument, but in doing so director Jordan Peele produced one of the best movies of the year.
*. 2017 also saw critical division and a box office flop in an adaptation of a previously-filmed Ira Levin novel. This was Mother!, a revisioning of Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, Mother! was borrowing from a lot more than just Rosemary’s Baby but I think that was the most obvious source and parallel.
*. I guess all I’m saying is that Levin deserves a lot of credit for creating such a pair of durable modern myths. I find his writing only functional, but there’s no denying his ability to get at contemporary social anxieties. His main point seems to be that there’s only ever a thin layer of civilization papering over humanity’s inherent evil: our natural state consisting primarily of cruelty and selfishness. Neighbours may seem perfectly respectable, but of course they’re really monsters. And, in the end, so are we.
*. From this springboard much critical speculation over the meaning of Mother! has been launched. I think this was intended, as it is with any fantasy, but writer-director Darren Aronofsky didn’t want to encourage freestyle interpretation too much. As he put it, “I think it’s OK to be confused. The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.”
*. I think this is disingenuous. Mother! is an allegory, a story that’s meant to suggest another story (or various other stories). This makes it something different from what I think audiences were expecting.
*. I’m not saying it’s successful allegory, by the way. Just allegory. There is no “realistic” reading of it that works. There’s a reason none of the characters have names. They’re not characters, but meant to represent abstractions. I mean, a superstar poet? Come on.
*. As I see it, there are at least three main interpretive models available.
*. (1) A feminist take on the myth of the genius artist sustained by his long-suffering doormat of a helpmeet/muse. Behind (well behind) every great man, etc. His poetry will make him a god, while her domestic labour will be taken for granted, ignored, or even despised.
*. (2) A satire on the cult of celebrity, with the vulgar public all wanting to claim a piece of the star, whom they raise up only to destroy with their worshipful fandom.
*. (3) An environmental allegory, with Jennifer Lawrence as Mother Earth and Javier Bardem as the one who despoils her and then re-invents her (over and over) in his imagination.
*. Uniting all three of these is the religious idea. The artist, the celebrity, and the Earth are all objects of devotion. And Mother! duly raids the Bible for a lot of its language and imagery, some of which seems to have been tossed in for no reason at all.
*. While not religious myself, I have to register that I think this may be the most anti-Christian film I’ve ever seen. The savagery of its travesty of various rites and doctrines even outdoes Buñuel. These aren’t the coven of devil-worshipers in Rosemary’s Baby but basically a bunch of good Catholics. Which actually makes them worse! At least the NYC cultists didn’t wreck the damn place.
*. But to what end, all of this? I should say here that I didn’t dislike Mother! I actually liked it better than The Black Swan, which I thought was an even sillier movie. But I didn’t feel as upset or ambivalent about it as many did. I didn’t think the end was too chaotic or violent or hysterical or disturbing. I just thought it went on too long. And as far as the message is concerned (you may pick from the menu above or supply your own), it seemed shrug-worthy to me. Other films have explored these themes with more passion, originality, humanity, and coherence. Ultimately, it’s not that Mother! is about too much, but that it’s about too little.
*. I began by linking this movie to Get Out, and I think the comparison is instructive. Get Out is also an allegorical fantasy, but one whose story is fun just in its own right. By being more abstract, Mother! covers more mythic ground but is far less involving and in the end feels stuck in dream land. What point is it making, aside from the obvious? And how powerfully can it make any point, however simpleminded, when the action and characters are so removed from our own world? Those overhead shots of the house in its clearing made me think of the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another parable that, despite being set on a distant planet, seemed more rooted than Mother!
*. I’m curious as to what will happen to Mother! I could see it becoming a kind of cult film (or whatever passes for a cult film in the twenty-first century). I could also see it being totally forgotten. On balance, I think it’s well worth watching, and I’m glad there are filmmakers so determined to create a cinema of personal expression. I’m just not sure Darren Aronofsky has that much to say.

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