Jennifer Lawrence is not the protagonist of mother!
It may seem so on the surface, as the entire lurid, avant-garde fever dream that is Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is told through her perspective. But that’s born from the necessity of hiding the film’s true intentions from its audience until the final act: when a pregnant Lawrence is set upon by droves of her husband Javier Bardem’s fans and rendered a prisoner in her own home. The film gives the impression that Lawrence is a hapless Polanski blonde—like Mia Farrow suffering a demonic pregnancy in Rosemary’s Baby or Catherine Deneuve afflicted by a phobia of sex in Repulsion—who will ultimately succumb to forces beyond her control and inexplicably be branded a feminist icon by misguided critics. But then comes that stunning conclusion: Lawrence bathes herself in flames and Bardem rips out her heart, only to start anew with another “mother.”
It’s true that Aronofsky is a “passionate environmentalist” and told Vanity Fair of his intent to depict “how it must feel to be Mother Nature.” Also true that the film is drenched in religious themes and imagery, from Lawrence’s character (titled only “mother”) creating the home as her “paradise” only to have it desecrated by a metaphorical Adam and Eve (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), Cain and Abel (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), and biblical flood (a sink bursting). But the film’s Mother Nature parable is merely a surface-level read of Aronofsky’s masterful film.
There’s been a deluge of backlash to the film since its original marketing as some type of grindhouse horror film, more akin to Black Swan than the rest of Aronofsky’s oft-pretentious oeuvre. Many of the film’s champions have since posited that to truly enjoy mother! it shouldn’t be viewed as a horror film, but at its very core, that’s what Aronofsky has given us. It’s a crescendo of the body horror that has permeated his work for the past two decades.
As I said, if you read mother! as a retelling of the creation myth, it might seem like Lawrence is the protagonist. If that were true, however, her character’s lack of motivation for marrying a man twice her age (as pointed out by Pfeiffer while mocking Lawrence’s prudish attitude toward sex) and her neurotic obsession with decorating a goddamn house would not only be laughable but overtly misogynistic. While it’s true the depiction of violence against Lawrence could be interpreted as such, the mass attack she suffers at the end of the film reads more metaphorical than a physical condemnation of women.
I’m inclined to follow this line of thinking, merely because we’ve seen Aronofsky depict misogyny as it forms insidiously in men with positions of power in Black Swan. If anything, mother! offers the same by using Bardem’s imagination to manifest a world where “Mother Nature” is a subjugated, sexually docile woman. Because none of the people in mother! are real characters, they’re figments of Bardem’s imagination. He takes a crystal and uses it to create mother with the intent that she will breathe new life into his charred home, inspire his poetry, birth his child, and bring him adoration from his fans. As I said, Lawrence is not the protagonist of mother! Bardem is. This is his story.
Aronofsky has always been an artist concerned with the methods of other artists. Black Swan was as much about Natalie Portman’s descent into madness as it was a story of women who abused themselves—and suffered the abuse of men—for the sake of art; for a chance to have audiences revere their bodies. The Wrestler used Mickey Rourke to deconstruct how performative masculinity and an addiction to fame and exaltation is also a detriment to the body.
If we’re to take mother! by the rules of its universe, Lawrence’s character isn’t entirely real. She spends much of the film languishing in a daze in order to take the audience on a journey of uncertainty and fear, but the film’s final sequence reveals that she is a supernatural being. Furthermore, the house that she breathes life into is in the middle of nowhere and the visitors have vague motivations for arriving. Are they even real themselves? Lawrence has no idea Harris’ character is married until Pfeiffer appears, no idea that they have sons until the feuding Gleesons appear. It’s as if none of the characters in the film are real and Bardem, the one guiding them by his invocation of this enigmatic crystal, fills in the blanks when he sees fit.
He is after all a poet, and it’s through Lawrence’s inspiration that he’s finally able to create new work that materializes as quickly as the child inside Lawrence’s body. There’s no sense of time or place in mother! so who is to know if she’s been pregnant for the requisite nine months or whether it was mere days? Hours? Everything in this home is of Bardem’s whim. He’s actually the character that we know the most about—the one who takes a journey despite mother! not resting on his POV. He’s a man who conjures up a reason to exist, a reason to write, a reason for his fans to love him whenever his ambitions cause it to burn to the ground. But do we feel sorry for Bardem? Is he a hero with a tragic flaw of craving adoration or is he an antihero who deserves to be scorned for his relentless pursuits? Aronofsky’s script doesn’t tell us either way (is he a misogynist creating a plaything as a muse or is he a mere Bible purist and therefore a misogynist by happenstance?) even as it condemns Bardem’s actions as wicked and vainglorious.
Aronofsky has birthed one of his greatest films—a tale of a victim trapped in Sisyphean torment, doomed to repeat the same ritual over and over again, just like the addictions that bedeviled the protagonists of his former films. To say mother! isn’t a horror film is to display ignorance of the genre itself. After all, who is Bardem’s writer’s-block-ridden character besides a modern interpretation of Jack Torrance, Stephen King’s iconic character who sat in a residence in the middle of nowhere, plagued by demons as he tried desperately—in vain—to create art worthy of praise?