Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Allegories Packed Into “mother!”

Note: I’ve done my best not to spoil the plot or the effects of the film in any way, but readers who wish to retain the full jolt of surprise when they see the film should defer reading this post until after they’ve done so.

There are two literal mothers presented in the story of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film to which the title may refer; however, unsure as you may be of a whole multitude of things after seeing the film, it’s strikingly clear that Aronofsky has not concerned himself with the literal. The tumbling, nightmarish torrent of jump scares, hysterics, and eventual gore congeals, by starkly exploitative means, into even more ironic a horror film than this year’s brilliantly aware satire Get Out. That irony arises from Aronofsky’s strong allegorical purposes in making mother!, but just what he has presented an allegory of is the problem with which many viewers have found themselves burdened. (Or not. Aronofsky’s irony is sometimes so systematically laid into the film’s fabric, held so consistently right before the viewer’s face — just as the steadicam is before Jennifer Lawrence’s for most of the film — that some reviewers missed it entirely.)

The story of cyclical abuse and dependence could be taken for a number of political narratives of the moment. Exploitation and unwelcome presences are always easy targets for an exegesis on the evils of colonialism; specific incidents in the plot and the overtly sexualised view of the young and delicate woman at the centre resonate against the last few weeks’ resounding headlines of exposed sexual misconduct and the ubiquitous abuses of power they constitute; it could be read as a nerve-shredding depiction of what it’s like to try and lead a calm and sheltered life with someone who craves, and is eventually granted, celebrity in a media-sodden culture; Herman Eloff, in his review for Channel24, sees it as a critique of the unguarded openness and unchecked desires that our electronic and connective lives allow us to indulge; Aronofsky himself reportedly claims a parallel with “the rape and torture of Mother Earth” (in Lawrence’s words), which explains the title, and which is how I initially viewed the allegory, with the house as an analogue for Earth, and the increasingly aggressive characters representing us in our careless exploitation of natural resources. The problem is compounded by explicit allusions to Biblical paradigms and Aronofsky’s characteristically frenziedly subjective depictions.

You may feel, as you watch long steadicam tracking shots spin and a fragile woman take on larger and larger burdens of emotional strain, that this film is relatively close in form to Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but really it’s much closer in substance to his more recent work Noah, which becomes more apparent as the film’s core begins to break through its surfaces while the story approaches its climax. The underlying savagery of the world of mother! is torn open and revealed about halfway through, in a Cain-and-Abel episode more immediately shocking and tragic than the one separating Noah from all other men — Aronofsky offers conspicuous visual quotes of the passage, as in, “your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” A growing, restless crowd recalls the dark mass of people forsaken by the Creator when he flooded their world. A young mother-to-be, bringing brittle hopes for humanity’s brighter future, is again the pivot on which the world’s survival and extinction turn. And the implicitly divine exaction of humanity for its wrongdoing is merciless and awesome in the totally of its destruction. Aronofsky, who, though not a devout believer, is by no means an atheist sceptic, seems to find little solace in the Bible’s teachings, but contemplates with a probing wonder the grandeur and terror of its stories, particularly those of Yahwistic origin and of the intensely strange, constant communion between Him and man in primordial times — Aronofsky rues the loss of humanity’s respect and even deference for the natural environment and its resources, but it’s as if he realises the inordinate spiritual and psychological cost it bore on the earlier peoples who practiced it. Nature can be terrifying when it turns against mankind and the results have often been catastrophic, but she’s hardly more comforting or trustworthy when her supremacy is unchallenged.

I think (and, of course, my view may well change when I see the film again, as well as each time after that) that the real (however unintended) meanings and effects of the film’s story become clear as it draws to a close. I read the film as the story of Jennifer Lawrence’s doting wife whose selfless emotional support for her ambitious and artistic husband (played by Javier Bardem) is abused and exploited, both for his psychological gratification and his artistic purposes. From the beginning, he is clearly detached from a full emotional connection to his wife, which is soon revealed to have developed into a sexual detachment as well. Aronofsky may lay claim to earnest environmentalist causes and similar political programmes, but his filming of the couple when they’re still relatively isolated and available to each other has a keen, though subtle, erotic dimension of full-blooded and fully human warmth.

While the final consequences of the emotional behaviours of the artist and his wife are clearly defined (and enacted, in clear metaphor and metonymy), the man and woman themselves (as distinct from the characters identified as “man” and “woman” in the credits, played, respectively, by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) remain unclear. It’s not Lawrence and Bardem’s performances that obscure them — certainly not in the way that Natalie Portman’s stunningly opaque performance evoked entire psychological worlds for her ballerina Nina — but the characters themselves as they are conceived by the writer and director are obscured. This is almost definitely intentional, and befits the universal trauma of our crimes against Nature that Aronofsky perceives and aims to depict. But F.W. Murnau also spun universalist speculations of a man and a wife — in one of the very greatest of all films ever made — while maintaining a clear individual presence for each of them, also in the midst of an unnamed, though psychologically significant, milieu. The trouble is that Aronofsky has succeeded in making a movie he didn’t try to make: one about the real psychologies and emotions of two real (albeit fictional) people; while his figures are still designed for the movie he did try to make: one about the vast and horrifying spiritual consequences of mankind’s savagery and greed, and the cataclysmic ramifications we’ve swiftly brought upon ourselves. More’s the pity, because, as Black Swan, one of the best Hollywood movies of recent years, demonstrates, when Aronofsky’s work meets an inner depth that matches its outer breadths, the aesthetic results are overwhelming.

Note (14 November 2017): In yet another interpretation, Ilan Preskovsky, who posted his review on his blog yesterday, sets out the Biblical allusions in the film and relates it to the human condition and experience in a fallen world.

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