This article contains major mother! spoilers.
We’ve been here before. Metaphorically and literally. A house that was consumed by despair and hate is replenished, seemingly renewed by the woman living in it. Is she the same lady of the house as before? Does it matter? She certainly looks young enough to not be the first purported true love of a middle aged artist’s life, and in the case of mother!, she both at the beginning and end of the film resembles Jennifer Lawrence by an awful lot. And yet, it’s entirely irrelevant whether this is the past or present—a decidedly less kinky version of the “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror Picture Show or an actual continuation of a deluded man’s ravenous ego. mother! begins as it ends: in flames and then forgetfulness.
It is hard to imagine a more lyrical or decidedly challenging conclusion to a widely released horror film these days. Indeed, even with Darren Aronofsky’s pedigree in the genre and arthouse—which he’s previously wedded in the sublime Black Swan—it is unlikely this film would even see a fraction of the number of screens it now enjoys without Aronofsky’s real-life muse, Lawrence, embodying the tragically disposable one in mother! Nevertheless, here we are with a fascinatingly strange, bizarre, and eminently confounding film. An indulgent one too. Albeit, this is by design.
While on the surface mother! starts as a psychological thriller with some potentially supernatural elements (it certainly borrows liberally from Roman Polanski’s demonic Rosemary’s Baby), it is in fact something far stranger. The film ultimately refines itself by the third act into a picture that revels in surrealism and magical realism. And, in essence, it’s simply what the film’s poor excuse of a husband (Javier Bardem) is striving for the whole time: a poem. One that’s every bit the allegory and self-admitted pretension as the poem-within-a-poem that Lawrence’s wife reads midway through the film.
Near the beginning of the third act, with the lady of the house finally getting her wish and becoming a mother, the husband reveals he has finished a poem. It’s a sonnet that apparently took eons to find the words for, as he began it about nine months prior to this scene. Still, it’s finally done, and when Lawrence’s very pregnant protagonist at last reads the words, we hear neither rhyme nor alliteration, or even a single syllable. Instead, viewers are asked to feel the mother-to-be’s emotion. The poem is about her and the love she has built for her husband, which is exemplified by their house. In this visualization, a dead and ruined husk of a home repairs itself, piece by piece, until it is the rustic Heaven of her husband’s youth. It literally recreates the safe space Bardem’s character grew up in with his now deceased (and burned away) mother.
The wife of this story mistakenly believes the poem is for her, when in fact everything she has done is for the poem. And her film, on a macro level, is the story of the rose tinted microscope that Bardem’s poem paints their relationship in. For despite the ode’s visualization showing them holding hands, mother! is a love story about a man, his ego, and the fans who feed it. And none is more important than the woman—any woman, really—who will give her last measure to this boundless appetite.
It is thus difficult to truly explain the ending without considering the whole film, which is less a narrative than a feature-length scree, and presumably a personal one for its writer-director too. Ever the iconoclast and deeply contemplative auteur, Aronofsky would appear to be holding up a mirror to himself—or at least a fictional version that stands in for all artistic hearts who, according to the stereotype, are nothing without their muses who feed and fuel the creation.
So enters Jennifer Lawrence’s nameless heroine. Introduced as a wife and nothing more, she appears to have no life or desires beyond feeding the creative spark of her husband. Bardem’s equally unnamed, yet universal, protagonist has convinced a much younger woman than himself to make her life and desires completely supplementary to his own. (And at this point, I will simply refer to the nameless characters by the surnames of the actors who play them).
Hence even before the “weirdness” begins, Lawrence’s onscreen life is already a haunted affair. She wakes up throughout the first act alone and without a husband. He’ll likewise soon spurn her romantic advances despite being an older man who, as Michelle Pfeiffer’s “woman” surmises, should “be all over you.” Aye, he can only finally bother with touching her when she challenges his vanity by saying, “You can’t even fuck me.” And he can’t. He’s making love to his impugned honor after Lawrence drops that gauntlet before him.
It is a one-sided love story, and the house she is building for him is a literal personification of that deep want Lawrence feels for this man. And for once, it is safe to use the term “literal,” because the heart and bleeding veins that Lawrence hears throughout the picture, either through walls or protruding beneath clogged toilets, is the actual heart of her feeling. The house is only truly destroyed when her own physical heart is removed in the film’s finale… and saved when Bardem restores it to its proper resting place as a trophy on his wall. Or perhaps a notch on his belt?
Ergo, Lawrence’s entire existence is built around pruning and renovating that love, improving it with every brush of paint and each new rug placed on the floor. Not once does Bardem help his wife, because it is her love, not his. And after it reaches full bloom—once Lawrence has built a nest for the two to share a child—he is finally liberated to mine it for his art. It inspires him, but so would any mirror. He is carefully listening, waiting, for an echo of the song his own long-dead mother sang for him in this very same spot. And once his wife, keeper, and thereby parent, fully embraces that role, he feels safe and indulged enough to create.
It’s clear Lawrence has made mending this home her goal in life out of a love for her husband, but his goal is only to have her reflect his own self-admiration and give him the words to share it with the world. For like a baseball field in Kevin Costner’s backyard, if you build it up enough, they will come.
The first who do appear are longtime admirers of Bardem: Ed Harris and Pfeiffer’s husband and wife characters. If you viewed the film in a literal sense, it is likely that Harris’ character confessed his love for Bardem on their first night together, hence why the husband always sided with the supposedly sick man over his own wife’s concerns.
But in a more abstract sense, Harris and Pfeiffer are no different than the mob that ultimately destroys the love and personal intimacy that Bardem’s bride desperately tries to offer. These interlopers are lesser fledglings than his wife, and thus cannot create the exact fawning which Bardem craves, but they are nonetheless his true passion—an endless array of adoring faces. The give and take between the personal and public life of an artist, at least a successful one like a published poet (or Hollywood-financed movie director), is the same push-and-pull between Lawrence and Pfeiffer’s rivalry. The former wishes to keep a side of Bardem to herself while the latter cannot leave anything for the shadows… or those who might hold a more legitimate claim over Bardem’s time.
Bardem is the host according to Pfeiffer, not one of a pair of hosts; Bardem is also the one who can do no wrong, not a wife who must clearly be failing him in the bedroom.
There is also more than a hint of meta-commentary on the lives of women in the public, be it as an artist’s paramour or a star and artist herself. Compare when Bardem yells and demeans Harris and Pfeiffer after they shatter the previous vestige of his previous genius, and how they shrug it off, to the general anger and disdain held against Lawrence when she ignores the creepy, sleazy advances of a character who I’ll refer to as “Wall Street Bro.” He quickly concludes Lawrence is a “cunt” since she will not leave with him that very night.
And the vilification of women—successful women, strong women, “difficult” women—is further expounded upon during the end of the film. The baby Lawrence and Bardem gave life to, the fruit of their union, is destroyed by the ravenous, greedy mob. In her righteous anger, Lawrence lashes out at these murderers… and is in turn beaten, stripped, demeaned, and sexually assaulted. She is called a “bitch” and a “cunt” again by the mob, including a resurgent Wall Street Bro.
If most of the film feels like an awkwardly personal composition by Aronofsky on the subject of any successful creative mind, then this treatment of Lawrence by the masses is a distinctly feminine accentuation. For an actress who has gone from “America’s Sweetheart” to the target of a cruel internet hack, to finally now the scourge of reddit users, it is also an intimate reimagining of public life in a nutshell—and one that women in almost any other career path could find familiar.
Still, the movie by its end is not Lawrence’s. Both the actress and her character are pushed aside by an off-screen storyteller, and the repulsive one Bardem plays. For the most selfish thing about Bardem is that he not only ruins the love that he allowed his wife to pointlessly nurture—he also steals its purpose from her.
In the end, Bardem is too self-conceited to care about Lawrence’s love and lets the crowd and public turn a tangible, if doomed, romance into a heightened magical one. Simple acts of grueling torture, like the couple who maliciously sit on Lawrence’s kitchen counter until it shatters, give way to the house being turned into a bloody warzone that devours all, including her child.
During the final scenes, the mob rips a baby to shreds, killing any chance for a future with Bardem. Lawrence has given and lost everything for Bardem and his art, and received nothing in return. But still, Bardem is not done! He steals Lawrence’s life (and movie) from her by making her death about him and his ego. Yet again, the male artist takes without giving, and in this case it is the actual beating heart which grants life to Lawrence, their house, and her diminished but still wheezing affection for him. It is all destroyed and consumed by the arrogant creator, who cannot bring himself to create anything of substance with another human being.
The structure is destroyed, but it just is one more token of Bardem’s genius. Another trophy. He puts it on a shelf and starts again. Invariably, a new woman sleeps in his bed and takes the role of caregiver in his mother’s house. Bardem has love again. She is also played by Jennifer Lawrence, because it doesn’t matter if she is the same woman or not. Out one door and in another. The cycle continues, and the art is fed.
Intriguingly, the film uses wide shots between doorways—exacerbating the secretive, conspiratorial atmosphere provided by Bardem’s guests—to intentionally evoke Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby… which the 2017 film’s marketing took to even greater extremes. Further, the entirety of mother! plays like an epic evolution of one of that film’s most slyly heinous subplots. In that 1968 picture, Mia Farrow’s Rosemary is duplicitously sold as a breeding mare to Satan himself by her husband Guy (John Cassavetes). In return, Guy becomes a successful Broadway star and sees his career skyrocket. All it took to make it though was selling his soul and betraying his bride in the cruelest, most monstrous way.
mother! is that treachery at feature length. But there is no Devil or rapey demons here. The monster is an artist’s vanity and its unquenchable thirst for adulation and congratulation. To marry into that, Aronofsky would appear to suggest, is a greater hell than anything else imaginable.
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