Film (2017). Paramount Pictures presents a Protozoa production. Directed and written by Darren Aronofsky. Cast includes Jovan Adepo, Javier Bardem, Brian Gleeson, Domhall Gleeson, Ed Harris, Jennifer Lawrence, Laurence Leboeuf, Stephen McHattie, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Warren and Kristen Wiig. 121 minutes. Colour.
A woman and her environment are threatened by the fandom of a demiurge.
This allegory of the patriarchal basis of Religion and of the influence of its Linguistic structures and Mythology on the subsequent development of humanity's false consciousness about Climate Change, War and the artistic process is as rich in symbolism as it is muddled in execution. It is an audacious film, and a heartfelt one, but one whose decision to restrict itself to a parable on a plane removed from human recourse diminishes rather than expands its metaphoric intent.
The opening frame of the digitized visage of a woman wreathed in flames clearly foreshadows the fable of Disaster that is to follow. A poet (Bardem) suffering from writer's block and his muse (Lawrence, the woman from the opening frame) live in the burnt-out ruins of a house-like octagonal Keep in the woods; it is only as he, the creative force, places a crystal on a pedestal in his study that their environment (a kind of Pocket Universe designed, it would seem, to allow entry and egress for all but his romantic partner) transfigures into a renovated home amid a shining Edenic landscape (see Transmutation). A boorish man (Harris) and woman (Pfeiffer) – clear analogues for Adam and Eve – impose themselves on the couple, disturbing the progress of the muse's renovation of the house and disrupting her Inner Space. No-one, however, seems willing to acknowledge her growing dis-ease with the effect of the guests on the building; indeed, she seems barely to exist in the eyes of the visitors except in relation to the poet and her effect on his creative energy and appetite for Sex. The poet, in turn, is unwilling to acknowledge her Perception of wounds in the floorboards or the sudden appearance of a beating heart amid the interior walls of their home. Any attempt on the muse's part to express misgivings about the deleterious impact of the visitors is taken as irrational, or as a lack of respect for the worshipful influx of her husband's Fandom. It is only when the man and woman sneak into his study and shatter the forbidden, gem-like object the poet has stored there that he banishes them from the house; before they can leave, the man and woman's oldest son (Domhall Gleeson, playing Cain) and younger brother (Brian Gleeson, playing Abel) arrive to fight over their ailing father's will. The poet, the man and the woman take the seriously-injured younger brother for medical assistance and, while left alone in the house, the muse finds a trail of blood (warfare) leading to a boiler of oil (fossil fuel) in the basement. Abel dies; dozens of arrivals at the house hold a wake for the dead son, drinking, verbally harassing the muse and dislodging a sink from a wall in the kitchen (causing a flood). The muse, whose mood until this point has veered from private despair to subdued defiance and back again, finally snaps and expels the mourners from the house; a long-simmering argument with the poet results in sex and she wakes the following day knowing that she is about to come into full possession of her role in relation to the poet: mother.
If Darren Aronofsky's first feature film Pi (1998) was about the impossibility of bridging the gap between the human and the divine from the point of view of the human, mother! interrogates a similar set of Metaphysics from the point of view of the divine. The mind/body, male/female polarities about achieving artistic and physical perfection at the heart of both The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) were counterbalanced by the nitty-gritty of everyday reality: the enclosed Fabulation of mother!, by contrast, has little or no human factor against which to lean, and, therefore, very little with which to empathize, other than the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer, both of whom are very good. The news of mother's pregnancy inspires the poet-demiurge to finish his (previously blocked) opus and this in turn attracts a great many more fans to the house, many of whom are encouraged to engage in religious rituals by titular characters such as "cupbearer" (Adepo), "zealot" (McHattie) and "herald" (Wiig, who has previously been announced as the poet's publicist) and the house begins to devolve even further into destruction and chaos, driving the muse-become-mother to the repeated remedy of a mysterious yellow tincture (see Drugs) she keeps in the secrecy of her kitchen: this seems to refer to the Poison taken by the compliant and sequestrated female protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wall Paper (January 1892 New England Magazine; 1899 chap). By the time the increasingly-endangered mother witnesses the ravening throng feasting on the flesh of her new-born baby, it is clear that mother! has only one route by which to develop itself: as a Horror film intended as commentary on the violently-patriarchal relationship between organized religion and Western notions of the author. mother!'s frequent references to the SF Megatext, to the corpus of psychological horror Cinema and to visions of the End of the World in Western art are fleeting, allusive, phantasmagoric. The outbursts of human violence in High-Rise (2016) were, by contrast, dramatically counterpointed by realist modes of Sociology and Satire and by the fusion of events to contemporary Politics, such as a valedictory speech by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) over a montage of rioting; the central metaphor of a gem as the psychic shape a human (or Alien) being must take to withstand the vicissitudes of reality (and thereby achieve spiritual perfection) at the heart of the Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence by Doris Lessing was tethered to the cast of the author's own political sensibility (communism) and creed (Sufism, or Taṣawwuf). In mother!, violence is as symbolic as affect: the outcome of domestic Holocaust is that the poet pulls a (newly-reconfigured) gem from mother's dead body and replaces it on the plinth where it began the story; a fresh-minted mother awakes in the marital bed, a copy, in effect, without an original (see "simulacra" under Postmodernism and SF), and this is the end (and the beginning) of the film. Aronofsky succeeds in his furiously-allegorical depiction of a discourse as monomaniacal as human progress at the expense of all living things, but the human complexity that propels the discourse is not present; humanity is rendered merely as a symbolic host of gate-crashers into a personal narrative oblivious to every environmental concern but adoration.
mother! received equal choruses of boos and cheers during the standing ovation at its premiere at the 74th Venice International Film Festival in 2017; one Spanish critic was heard yelling furiously about Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) during the film's closing credits, and the invocation of the great surrealist filmmaker is, perhaps, germane to a discussion of mother!'s intentions. There is small doubt that humanity is living in a narrative of the world that wilfully ignores it most pressing concerns: the question is why one would want to perform this understanding as allegory rather than narrativize it more plainly as a piece of Fantastika set against the backdrop of a Living World or some other conception of Gaia, or as a piece of Genre SF in the mould of Kim Stanley Robinson in which earth's diminishing Ecology might be analysed in great detail by fictional Scientists. Early-stage surrealism sought through psychic automatism to escape the strictures of thought and expression that led to the wholesale slaughter of World War One; Buñuel's first collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Un Chien Andalou ("An Andalusian Dog" 1929) – a film to which Aronofsky made visual reference in Pi – combined dream syntax and religious imagery with the Time Out of Sequence story of young lovers in an apartment – and their next, L'Age d'Or ("Age of Gold" or "The Golden Age" 1930) combined Freudian analysis of "the sexual instinct and the death instinct" with the portrayal of a ruling class that desired nothing more than to kill its children. The "gift of violence" section of the manifesto accompanying L'Age d'Or asserted:
Waging the most desperate struggle against all artifice, subtle or vulgar, the violence in this film divests solitude of all it decks itself out in. In isolation each object, each being, each habit, each convention, even each image, intends to revert to its reality without materializing, intends to have no more secrets, to be defined calmly, uselessly, by the atmosphere it creates, the illusion being lost. But here is a mind that does not accept remaining alone and which wants to revenge itself on everything it seizes on in the world...
There are some senses, however, in which surrealism wilfully resists the single interpretation which allegory insists upon, and others in which a piece of fantastika might require the kind of realism a surrealist text does not. The dinner-guests in Buñuel's (overtly allegorical) El ángel exterminador ("The Exterminating Angel" 1962) find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the room in which they have met for dinner – film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) said the dinner guests represented the ruling class in Franco's Spain and that "trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac… they grow mean and restless, their worst tendencies… revealed…" – but the register of The Exterminating Angel is as realist as the action is disconcerting. The appearance of paedophile debauchee the Duc de Blangis from the Marquis de Sade's Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage ("The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage", written 1785-1789, pub 1904) as Jesus Christ in L'Age d'Or, along with a panoply of imagery including undead cardinals, flaming trees pushed from windows and murderous guests brandishing Weapons at a dinner party – occurred along the same symbolic plane as the rest of the imagery of the film. In mother!, allegory occurs in the same dramatic space as mention of hospitals, phone calls to the police and the career path of the poet-demiurge with neither explanation of why this disconnect between reality and dream occurs nor assertion of different logic of sense. Angela Carter used attributes from both the Duc de Blangis and his creator Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) to inform the riotous assembly of surrealist imagery and the reality-deviant character of "the Baron" in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972; vt The War of Dreams 1974), in which Mad Scientist Dr Hoffman overcomes the mundanity of everyday life by semiotic assault on the common language of human behaviour: human desire becomes an argument for revolutionary Feminism. It is possible, too, to dramatize surrealist affect in a realist mode, as did Ursula K Le Guin via the Technology of Dream Hacking in her passive-creative Anti-Utopia The Lathe of Heaven (March-May 1971 Amazing; 1971), in which Le Guin, like Lessing, drew on her political sensibility (anarchism) and creed (Taoism). In Rosemary's Baby (1968) – a film with which mother! shares narrative shape, thematic impetus and a reliance on surrealist filmmaking techniques – there is acute management of the transitions between the menace of domesticity and the human agglomeration of New York, and when the inexorable build to its devilish denouement resolves, it does so by revealing the deeper emotional truth of the link between "the sexual instinct and the death instinct" and motherhood, not only by contrasting Christian morality with the Magic of paganism, but also realistically, by dramatizing the effect of peer pressure on unconscious motivation. As powerful as the central allegory of the Word as wilful misapprehension at the centre of mother! is, it does not combine sufficiently with Aronofsky's private metaphor of the rebirth of an artist at the expense of his environment to become as personal for the viewer as it is for its writer and director, and there is little or no connotation of the Conceptual Breakthrough in human behaviour its author would so evidently like to see. mother! is, nonetheless, an important film and one that is wholly sincere in its assault on the connection between masculinity and human delusion. [MD]