Want to know what Mother! is all about? Ignore what its creators are saying

“Darren Aronofsky says Mother! is about climate change, but he’s wrong”

I chuckled when I first spotted this headline, on a piece by New Yorker writer Richard Brody, but increasingly I reckon he may be on to something. Brody had already published his review of Aronofsky’s gobsmacking house-as-body shocker, which he took to be a “thrilling, horrifying, nearly unbelievable satire of fame” (NB it’s the film’s very existence that he finds nearly unbelievable, not the horrifying events it portrays).

Then Aronofsky went and spoiled it all by saying the film was about climate change and the destruction of the planet, Jennifer Lawrence described her character as “Mother Nature”, and Biblical references were pieced together by attentive viewers (a rib removed here, a brother murdered there, a whole lot of idolatry and sin).

But what if the film isn’t really about environmentalism or fame or idolatry, but about relationships, emotional labour, selfishness and sacrifice, and the catastrophic error of committing to a life path based on a fundamental error of perception? “You don’t love me,” realises Lawrence’s Mother by the end of the film, shortly before she is replaced. “You just love how much I love you”.

What if the director and lead actress – whose own romantic relationship shares a significant age gap, at least, with the couple in the film – are seeking to deflect attention from the most obvious interpretation of the cinematic baby they’ve made together?

In another New Yorker piece, Alexandra Schwartz takes exception to the film on the basis that it has a “muse problem” – despite the very clear demonstration that Javier Barden’s poet suffers chronic writer’s block when the only person in the vicinity is his nurturing, nest-building partner. Schwartz criticises Aronofsky for what appears to be the regressive premise of “A woman creates life, a man creates art!”, adding: “If, as some critics have written, he is trying to demonstrate what it is like to be the female ‘partner’ – the word is not appropriate here – of an egomaniacal male artist, then why subject her to such abject torment and humiliation?”

Well, why not? Given women are subjected to abject torment and humiliation at the hands of male parters in real life, why not in art, and particularly in art that shows the experience from a woman’s perspective? Given how many people – male and female – apparently regarded Breaking Bad’s Skylar White as a shrewish bitch who spoiled everything, despite the fact that she was subjected to the same, this hardly seems a redundant demonstration. How often, in Hollywood movies, do we even see the action from a woman’s perspective? When is a mother character not a killjoy, a buzzkill, an obstacle?

Imagine the film from the poet’s perspective: a tortured hero, a frustrated talent seeking inspiration, whose wife smothers him with baked cakes, unwanted kisses and constant nagging about whether he has written anything yet (even at the very moment when he is putting pen to paper). From the first word of dialogue (“Baby?”) she acts as much like his mother as his romantic partner, and despite her youth and beauty they are not having sex. Imagine key scenes in the first half from his point of view: she sulks, she complains, she fails to play along. She doesn’t understand his needs.

Like Walter White, the poet isn’t portrayed as a monster, but as a flawed man with a super-sized ego who – initially, at least – genuinely cannot see things from his wife’s perspective. His lack of empathy for her is all the more galling given his compassion for the perfect strangers he welcomes into their house. His lack of consideration for her wellbeing is all the more outrageous given that the human condition is the subject of the very work that brings mobs of admirers to their door.
I was reminded of Constance Wu’s words about Casey Affleck, following his Best Actor nomination for Manchester By The Sea and in light of the allegations of sexual harassment made against him by two young women. “He’s running for an award that honours a craft whose purpose is examining the dignity of the human experience,” she wrote. “And young women are deeply human.” Does the poet’s writing deserve the acclaim it receives? Should his perspective on the world be privileged over that of others whose existence is not sustained by the physical and emotional labour of young women? And if so, what price is worth paying to have it in the world?

Of course, by the end of the film the poet’s behaviour goes far beyond casual disregard and we discover the horrifying truth about that precious crystal in his study. But even here – is the message so far-fetched? While most women do not literally pay with lives to cater to the whims of male partners, how many subordinate themselves for a lifetime of service to a one-sided “love” that dehumanises them, reducing them to little more than facilitators, admirers, objects, receptacles. Mother is a fan of the poet’s work, and presumably it was the work that brought them together, but her opinion of it counts less than that of an older, professional man. “Is he better?” she asks, the question layered with meaning. The poet barely pauses to listen. She rephrases it into an expression of concern for their guest’s health, reverting to her role as nurturer. He replies in the affirmative, then he’s gone.

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