If you’ve ever read the Book of Genesis, or if the story is familiar to you, then you’ve already been spoiled for Mother!. If, on the other hand, you view the movie strictly as a marital horror-drama, there is still a narrative to appreciate.
The biblical framework went over my head at first, and it seemed like a film that was giving a booming voice to a character that, traditionally, has always been silent and submissive. It can still be appreciated as doing so, in a tangential kind of way.
To introduce her as an archetype: Mother!’s protagonist is a Marge Simpson, a Mrs De Winter, a Penelope – she is a dutiful Good Wife. Even under increasingly unreasonable circumstances, she is deeply loving and faithful. Much of the plot’s horror comes from what filling that role does to her.
The Good Wife’s glorification comes from her willingness to be used and dismissed, never rebelling and always abundantly ready to give; a self-destructive passivity which is romanticized as loyalty. The stereotype is a chilling one for women who value their freedom because it is entrenched in culture, both literary and social, enough to drive expectations. Even in the days of women’s marches and feminist zines, the “ride-or-die” is an idea that just will not die.
Mother! visually sums up everything that makes the Good Wife archetype so disturbing, and by the way of telling the story of mother earth – for that was director Darren Aronofsky’s intention – artfully translates it into a horror film.
The main character (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is in a constant state of being consumed or invaded, and simultaneously gaslighted about it. For those not familiar with the term gaslighting, it’s a pervasive yet subtle form of abuse where the victim’s reality is denied and replaced with the preferred reality of the abuser. As an example; the main character clearly does not want strangers in her house, yet her husband consistently invites them in without consulting her. In the face of her attempts to discuss the issue or make her feelings known, he conceals when he has invited strangers over, resulting in his wife being constantly ambushed. When the house is trashed, or when she suffers a violent shock or distressing incident, he brushes off her trauma as if it was a minor annoyance and treats her as if she is overreacting.
The main character’s husband (played by Javier Bardem) is not himself violent, except in one scene. He is seemingly gentle and affectionate and that amplifies the awfulness of the film’s spiralling plot. His permissiveness in the face of violence, along with the film’s catastrophic ending, reveals the husband’s all-consuming love for himself. It is his hunger to be adored and worshipped which drives his actions. The protagonist is merely a figure in his story: his devoted wife, his muse, but never his partner. This places him firmly in the “God” role, which makes the film’s choice of protagonist stand out all the more.
The movie reinforces the pinned-in-place role of the main character through her bond with the house, cemented by layers of visual metaphors and the fact that she never leaves it. She is bound to the house the same way she is bound to her body, and the fact of this makes the movie’s ending all the more impactful.
The camera watches the main character with an invasive, staring closeness throughout the film, when it’s not showing us something from her direct perspective. In fact, I don’t remember her being out of shot for more than five seconds at a time. This claustrophobic nearness and intimacy reinforces every assault, both the physical and the emotional, so that even in relatively quiet scenes you feel as if you’re watching something terrible and extremely personal from right over someone’s shoulder.
To be perfectly honest, I struggle with describing this movie. It’s very Aronofsky. It is powerful. It’s stuffed from the toes to the nose with allegory and nods to the Old Testament. Other than that, I’d tell you to watch it because it is brilliant and unique, but if you do, be warned. Mother! is not for the faint-hearted.
Mother! is currently showing at Dendy.
Featured image courtesy of Vimeo.