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“My heart’s aflutter!” launches Frank O’Hara’s 1957 “Mayakovsky,” “I am standing in the bath tub/ crying. Mother, mother/ who am I?” Later the speaker blurts, “That’s funny! There’s blood on my chest … what a funny place to rupture!” The voice is by turns rattled, brash, and shenanigany — not unlike the lines of the Futurist poet for whom the piece is named.
Similar excess and bleak caprice mark Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a film that, for all its convolutions, is as glorious as it is gory. With critical responses inconsistent at best, the film has already been pegged “2017’s Most Hated Movie.” Be that as it may, it could also be the year’s most loved. For those with an appetite for the absurd — and a stomach for the abject — Mother! succeeds precisely where Aronofsky’s earlier films do not; it doesn’t pretend to be realism, nor does it simply bat its eyes at horror. It is Black Swan dialed up a dozen grand jetés, The Wrestler body-slammed into the comically baroque. (Warning: some minor and one major spoiler ahead.)
From the start — the droll “ding” sound accenting the exclamation point in its opening credits — the film gestures to camp, a comedic register that, for Aronofsky’s oeuvre, hasn’t gone unnoticed by queer-focused critics. This is the same punctuation that Anthony Lane claimed “should be read as a public-health warning,” dubbing the movie patently “insane.” And it is insane, if one can’t keep up with its nimble tonal jumps and mercurial emotional logic.
Indeed, that’s part of the fun of Mother! It’s circuit training for the nerves, Crossfit for the critically minded. Watching populist princess Jennifer Lawrence clutch her womb and caterwaul, “My baby!” while her residence hosts the apocalypse, it makes sense that many might not know whether to wince or snicker. A. O. Scott — one of the few major names with an affirmative take on the film — has called it “a hoot;” but if it’s a “divine comedy,” as he suggests, it is one with a hellish edge. Scott has a laugh at the movie’s wit and “gift for escalation,” but doesn’t see it for what it is: camp with unlikely feminist undertones.
In place of O’Hara’s lonely tub, we get an unsupported kitchen sink that rips a domus from its axis. Lady blood seeps from the hardwood floor in a house in the middle of nowhere. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence Seriously Have It Coming.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that “Mother” has it coming (and coming, and coming). Such is the character title for Lawrence’s put-upon wife, who — no matter how dutifully she boils a pot of tea or rehabs a vacant guest room — can’t seem to gain her husband’s respect or attention, even after he knocks her up. It is in this way that no matter the outrageous (some say misogynistic) violence her body endures, a feminist seam unravels. Whether it’s the epithets tossed her way with sudden abandon (“cunt” and “bitch” from well-heeled visitors) or the crazed mob that corrupts her Crate + Barrel crusade, a liminal space emerges wherein the verity of victimhood and the hilarity of martyrdom compete for our attention.
“There is something indecent about imagining this terrible reality as fantasy visited on a haute-bourgeois couple detached from time and place,” says the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwarz in her critique of the film. And she’s right; there is something indecent. It’s the sheer level of indecency in Mother! that makes this film so bitterly, darkly funny — and subversive, in ways Schwarz clearly overlooks.
Make no mistake: Mother! isn’t feminist because Jennifer Lawrence says it is any more than it’s a “climate change allegory” because its director wants to sound virtuous. Aronofsky is one of those artists whose work is smarter than he is — and we are better for it. Lawrence (of whom perhaps the same could be said) lauds the movie as “feminist in the way that these Victorian, patriarchal novels show these loving, amazing husbands that are very slowly and delicately taking away their wives’ dignity.”
Jane Eyre it is not: if Mother! could initially read as slow and delicate, dripping with passive-aggression and chilly aloofness between husband and wife, its final third is an epic shitshow to rival Polansky’s Rosemary’s Baby or del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Which is to say, by the end of the film, “dignity” is a concept best forgotten: nobody has it, certainly not the audience — many guffawing at the end-of-days bathos engulfing everything onscreen.
Susan Sontag once argued that “the whole point of camp [was] to dethrone the serious.” Mother! does exactly that, then smacks us with its scepter. When Lawrence goes from being a figurative to literal punching bag in the movie’s finale, she is all but unrecognizable. Like an alien pried from an incinerated spacecraft, or a gamine lifted from the depths of Pompeii, Lawrence is burnt to a freakish crisp impossible to take seriously. For all Aronofsky’s preciousness (of which there seems an endless reserve), Mother! ultimately lampoons, rather than confirms, essentialist conceptions of motherhood, all while exposing the daily inequities endured by many women today.
The final shot of the film — and surely its most sobering — returns us to this reality, insofar as women still often serve as disposable muses for Big-C Creative Men. Mirroring the scene that opens the film, another young wife emerges from a down duvet, presumably Lawrence’s speedy replacement. She is just as moonfaced, just as dewy, just as wholesome in her cotton gown. Hearing her call out “Baby?” to an absent Bardem rings as much more plausible, much more painful, than watching J-Law’s newborn get devoured by strangers. The cycle continues, and it is all too real.
Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is screening at select movie theaters nationwide. More info here.
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