[This post contains spoilers for Mother! and for Pi.]
I have always thought Darren Aronofsky is a little bit up his own ass. By which I mean to say, his films are deliberately and self-consciously smart and grating before they are entertaining. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s resulted in a kind of modern theater-of-cruelty ethos that has the disadvantage of not punching up so much as punching out at everything and everyone.
Aronofsky’s films (the few I’ve seen) assault the senses, then the morals, then the marrow. He does what he does well, though it’s definitely not for everybody.
It is not, for instance, for me at all. I saw Pi back in the day when it first came out, and thought it was interesting, though a difficult watch. Definitely not the kind of movie I’d ever like to watch *again*. (Let’s just say that nothing that culminates in trepanning is ever likely to be something I watch twice. Let’s just agree to that and move on forever.)
Requiem for A Dream was the movie that brought me to a place where, if I ever met Aronofsky in person, I would have to rigorously restrain myself from punching him straight in the nuts. That movie is one of the few well-crafted films I’ve seen that I would almost certainly never recommend to anyone under any circumstances. It haunted my twilights for weeks after I saw it. I swore off the man’s films after that.
I swore off them, at least, till I was in the thick of my current movie project (or lifestyle, really).
When I saw the trailer for Mother! I was moderately interested. It wasn’t at the top of my list, but when you’re seeing a movie a week, sometimes the tides and fates combine to bring you to something you wouldn’t usually watch.
I know a lot has been said already about the film. I know critics liked it and audiences hated it, which seems to be exactly what Aronofsky is always looking for.
I watched the film rapt and horrified. I was swept along with the titular character’s helpless anxiety and eventual despair. We start on a closeup of the Mother’s face and are told the premise of the story by her actions and reactions to small things around her.
The movie *is* the Mother. She is the only character who doesn’t wind up seeming wooden and distant and callous. As her distant husband, the poet, ignored everything she was wishing and feeling, and as her world falls apart around her due to the selfishness and reckless actions of those around her, I felt every blow she took and I thought to myself, “this is the ultimate ‘the patriarchy is the villain’ horror story.”
I wasn’t surprised, when I looked it up the next day, to find out that Aronofsky was selling it as some elaborate metaphor about the way human beings treat the Earth. I can see where and eco-parable is the movie he was trying to make, but it’s not the movie he wound up making. When the only person that seems real is the one you’re trying to sell as the metaphor, I don’t buy it. It reminded me of nothing more than The Good Woman of Scezhuan written by someone with less political awareness than Brecht had.
The mother has worked meticulously and wants comfort and appreciation. She is given neither, not even from her husband. Even though the house she has lovingly restored theoretically belongs to him. Even though the hospitality he thoughtlessly offers in complete disregard of her comfort with the situation is only important to him. Even though she is living her whole life in the service of his comfort, his vision, his work, he gives her next to nothing. He takes and takes from her without a thought of what he’s taking and at the end of the movie, she dies in fire and he is the one who gets another chance (another wife, another regeneration of the house) to begin again.
We are not killing the earth. We are changing it and making it unliveable for many of the things on it, including ourselves. The Earth will remain. We are the ones who will not. Mother!’s metaphor reads more like the kind of horror woman experiences when she’s trying to fit into patriarchal notions of what a “good woman” is and does and finds out it’s really, really bad for her. That it strips her of energy, time, sympathy and health for the sake of someone else’s work. And how she’s not supposed to complain abougt it at all.
The only way one could miss that feeling utterly from the film is to lack awareness of who women are and what they’ve been asked to do.
Mother! was like a horror film version of The Giving Tree, written from the tree’s perspective. A argumentum ad absurdum of what many women go through every day as they give and they give for partners, for workplaces, for children and for everyone who passes through their lives. Women already do more work than men to keep society running and moving forward. That’s not opinion – studies have shown they do more cleaning, more emotional labor, more childcare, more teaching, more cooking… all these fundamental things without which the coders and hedge fund managers and, yes, poets would wither and die.
You can try to make that a metaphor for something, but really, it’s just life.