If there’s anything readily obvious about Darren Aronofsky latest film, mother!, it’s the movie’s ability to divide opinion. When the credits first rolled after its premier at the Venice Film Festival, half the audience booed while half gave it a standing ovation. And yet for all the strong emotion it has engendered, the film remains deeply misunderstood by critics and viewers.
It is not, for instance, a “vehemently exaggerated satire on the burdens of fame,” as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody would have it. It is not a home-invasion psycho-thriller à la Rosemary’s Baby, as many of the pre-release promotional materials were leading us to believe. And it is certainly not “torture porn,” as National Review’s Kyle Smith deemed it in a particularly histrionic review. What it is, however, is an impressionistic, biblically inspired allegory for the drama of creation. And this is not just my own reading; the movie honestly invites us to consider it theologically. Aronofsky said as much in a Reddit forum with fans, admitting that once he “decided to turn to the stories of the Bible,” he had a great “breakthrough” in writing the script. Moreover, Aronofsky isn’t simply hijacking the characters of Genesis (the creator God, the created Earth, Man, and Woman) or its plot points (an idyllic beginning shattered by fratricide giving way to an apocalyptic reckoning) for the sake of telling some other story. Rather, he’s unironically taking up those characters and that plot and playing with them from the inside. This is the source both of the movie’s power, and of the prevalent misunderstandings inflicted upon it.
The film is divided rather neatly into two parts, the first of which focuses on the small, domestic drama between Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). The couple live in beautiful, secluded house. Him, a poet, seeks vainly for inspiration; Mother, a literal homemaker, lovingly restores the grand Victorian mansion, describing it as a “paradise” for the lonely couple. (Indeed, the home’s Edenic qualities are hard to miss.) Yet if we’re following the source material, the beginning of the film takes place before the sixth day. God is alone with his creation; man has not yet intruded upon the scene. Mother, for her part, cherishes this isolation; the poet, we sense, is agitated by it.
Before long, Man (Ed Harris) arrives at their door seeking hospitality, which the poet is eager to give, claiming Man’s presence is good for his creativity. Mother, however, is skeptical: She’s not so keen on opening her home to this mysterious stranger. Indeed, Man seems off somehow—awkward, unsure of himself. Nevertheless, the poet extends the Man every courtesy, drinking with him and even offering to let him stay the night. As it turns out, Man is kept awake with a fit of asthma (and an open wound near his rib…). Then his wife, Woman (played by Michele Pfeiffer with characteristic panache), shows up too.
Here is Aronofsky’s first brilliant subversion of the biblical source myth. If she could, might the spirit of the Earth, God’s first creation, object to the entry of mankind into existence, which must have seemed a rude intrusion upon a heretofore peaceful reality? If we indulge a healthy bit of anthropomorphizing (which is, after all, the point of allegory), mightn’t we easily imagine Mother (i.e., Mother Earth) to be jealous—even suspicious—of the attention God showers upon His new creatures? The juxtaposition of Lawrence’s Mother and Pfeiffer’s Woman is particularly sharp: Where Mother is reserved, chaste, and demure, Woman is forward, crass, and bristling with unencumbered sexual energy. She guzzles vodka, comments on her hostess’s unsexy lingerie, and paces the house like it’s her own. In a cruel reversal, we learn that Mother isn’t (yet) a mother, though she very much wants to be, while Woman casually complains about how her several children have been a drag on her social life. Two tropes of femininity emerge here and motherhood is made to seem arbitrary, an unearned advantage of the acquisitive “bad woman” who flaunts her fecundity in front of the accommodating but barren “good woman.”