By Conor White-Andrews
It is at the beginning of the sequence that ultimately closes Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” that Natalie Portman, our skeletal Swan Queen, sinks into madness. Returning to her dressing room after leaving the stage in a fit of despair, she finds a taunting Mila Kunis sitting at her mirror, retouching the makeup around her eyes, dressed as the Black Swan.
“It’s just,” says Mila, sickly sweet, black to Portman’s white, “I’m worried about the next act.”
At this point, the camera moves away from the face in the mirror to the body in the seat, and now the face confronting Portman is her own. The proceeding act of violence results in a stabbing with a shard of glass from a broken mirror—a shattered self—at which point the wounded reflection morphs back into Mila Kunis. Portman, now truly the Swan Queen—black and white—returns to the stage to complete the performance. What we see there is surreal; her slender arms sprout thick black hair and her eyes are blood red. Her return to the dressing room reveals no dead body, merely a smashed mirror and a bloody fragment of glass protruding from her own stomach. The scene confirms what we already suspect: that what we have been seeing entirely through the interior world of the character. This is a common theme for Aronofsky, who, in his films, often presents the outside world—the physical—as an aggressor against his characters’ interior lives. The two are shown to be at odds, to be utterly incompatible.
His latest film, “Mother!,” opens with a scene of ruin: a mass of simmering embers behind the closeup of a woman’s scorched face. At the time I did not think that it was Jennifer Lawrence, and after watching the film, it would make sense that it not be. We do meet her, however, almost immediately afterwards. The film, after showing a house destroyed by fire miraculously breathing back into life, suddenly cuts to our central character, the eponymous “Mother.”
Protagonist, I feel, would be the wrong term. Instead she is simply our lens, our filter, through which to experience the film, the camera constantly hanging on her shoulder, or directly from her POV. She jolts awake. This, now, is the beginning of the film, just as it is the beginning of the line for Lawrence’s “Mother.” Sitting up, looking clean and virginal, unspoilt and not yet tainted by the external world, she exclaims, fearfully, a single word: “Baby?” We watch as she rises and descends, alone, through a grand house with long wooden floorboards, a warm morning glow filtering in through the many windows, before being startled by Javier Bardem’s unironically biblical “Him.” They are husband and wife, we learn, and this grand house is their paradise.
The first half of “Mother!” follows a fairly conventional narrative line. We have our two central characters in their vast new home, a home that we soon gather Lawrence’s character has refurbished practically alone, her poet-husband preoccupied with “greater” things—but clearly, where life should be glorious, something is wrong. Her husband is uninterested, condescendingly dismissive, and Lawrence’s Mother is suffering. There is a strange, debilitating, high-pitched ringing in her head and the house, when she grazes a wall or touches a tap, presents itself to her as living being. She feels its heartbeat, sees the bloody veins protruding. Telltale signs of trouble, certainly, only furthered by the arrival of first Ed Harris, who is wonderfully unaware and equally painful, and then Michelle Pfeiffer, in what is perhaps her greatest ever performance. At no point does the audience believe, unlike the over-welcoming Bardem, that the entrance of these figures is an innocent occurrence—there are no adjoining roads visible at any moment. There is no reason for them to be there, and their very presence is laced with menace. By the time Pfeiffer and Harris’ sons arrive, rapidly playing out a deranged recreation of Cain and Abel, the tension is long past breaking point. Lawrence’s “paradise,” her Eden, has been fatally disturbed.
Yet at no moment is the film unaware of itself as film. At no stage is cinematic device unaware of itself as device. There is a constant sense of unreality, and the opening half plays out almost like theatre, accompanying heavy footsteps over the house-as-wooden-stage and all. Our characters’ behaviour rejects naturalism—in their logic, their speech, their questions asked—and we are never moved far away from the notion of illusion, of the curtain behind the stage, of that which is unseen. Pfeiffer and Harris’ husband and wife function as instigators, as weapons utilised to provoke questions and to create tension. They are foil to Lawrence’s anxious Mother and Bardem’s solipsistic Him. Their statements are comments on the movie itself, with Pfeiffer in particular:
“This is all just…setting,” she tells Lawrence, regarding the house. “You’re like a child, breaking things into little pieces to control them.”
The narrative does not feel real, but Lawrence’s interior life does; when she encounters Bardem aiding a naked Ed Harris as he vomits into a toilet, suddenly clasping a hand over a bloody lesion on his back, we do not know if this is actually happening. Her Kafkaesque nightmare is the films guiding light.
The murder of one son by another leads to chaos, and I have never seen Kafka so fully realised cinematically, as in the “wake” scene that follows. But it is from this that the film turns, as Lawrence becomes pregnant. A baby is made, and, not only this, but a book—a piece of art—is born.
“I know what to say,” says Bardem, furiously forcing pen to paper. “I just have to find the right words.”
Order, though in no traditional sense, is forged from chaos.
What is clear about “Mother!” is that it is operating on various levels at all times, and the viewer is forced to consider this multilateralism. Even the architecture of the house itself, which is symmetrical at every point, suggests this. Of course, the biblical aspect—which is hopelessly entwined with an aggressive commentary on Man’s treatment of the environment, of Mother Earth—is overwhelmingly apparent, but is perhaps the least engaging reading.
There is something depressingly tedious about a Hollywood condemnation of this sort: one only has to listen to the acceptance speeches at this year’s innumerable award shows to gauge quite where they’re at, with regards to the general population. But “Mother!” demands that you read it in a number of ways: as our relationship with the planet; as the newly christened mother within the home; as the artist’s internal struggle against the physical; as the individual within a digitised society that renders it impossible to avoid the external world, the constant bad news in the Age of Trump (something heightened by the fact that my two friends and I had to wait outside the cinema at Fulham Broadway before entering because of a bomb scare). There is something eerily "Rosemary’s Baby" about it, as well as shades of Katie Kitamura’s stunning 2013 novel Gone to the Forest. It is a movie inexorably linked to the problems of our time, and, in terms of idea along with its form, I cannot imagine a more modern film.
More stimulating is Aronofsky’s exploration of the ineffably complex nature of the creation of a work of art, and of our relationship to art as a whole. What occurs after Lawrence’s child is born is surreal, bizarre, and ranges from pure farce—with another nod to Kafka—to the impossibly grotesque. Bardem’s poet, in the first half, cannot write. He is out of ideas, and drained of inspiration. One of the reasons for his being so inviting to the obviously crazed Harris and Pfeiffer is that he is desperately searching for something, for anything, to spark him out of his funk. Soon, when it comes, he just needs “to find the right words.”
And in doing this Aronofsky makes a comment of his own, and does so remarkably. After a strong career with various successful films (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” and “Black Swan,” among others) it seems that he has turned the camera inwards. “Mother!” is the depiction of an artist’s desperate search for a new means of expression. If the true aim of art is to communicate, to express something, then ultimately it is only in the abstract that “Mother!” is able to achieve this.
The movie sinks into the abstract, after pursuing a more conventional narrative in its opening half, to tackle subjects, which cannot possibly be addressed in their multitude in any linear way. At all moments is Jennifer Lawrence’s virginal Mother a creation, a lens for the viewer. Her fate is inescapably attached to that of the house, our setting.
“Nothing is ever enough,” Aronofsky said in a recent interview. “I couldn’t create if it was.”
At the end of the movie, when the house is destroyed by fire and we see the process recommencing, now another woman awakening in place of Lawrence, this is proven to be so. It is the ultimate examination of artist as Creator, of man as God.
“Mother!” defies singular meaning. Instead the film embraces the many levels on which it operates, as great art should, and forces its audience to engage with, or to tackle, intense ambiguities. Aronofsky’s creation sees, shows, and illuminates topics where the general population refuses to open its eyes. As a film, it violently rejects the notion of binary. Ultimately it is an incredibly visceral experience—a vicious, unrelenting assault on our intellect as well as our senses, as I imagine its Creator intended it to be. Certainly, I have never seen a film like “Mother!”