*spoilers will follow*
Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a thrilling movie. Several actors give excellent performances, including a wonderful Michelle Pfeiffer. But for all of the commentariat’s hemming and hawing over what the film is supposed to be about, and its alleged provocativeness and innovation, I believe one thing is quite clear: the film is profoundly conservative. mother! uses the trope of human nature as inherently fallible and sinful to forward a story about how the appropriate response to modernity is nothing but pious and dutiful suffering.
Some critics have suggested only that the film is only ornamented with Biblical references or allusions, but the entirety of mother! is best understood as a straightforward telling of the story of Genesis, and, though Aronofsky is Jewish, parts of the New Testament as well. Javier Bardem plays God and Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth, as the filmmaker has revealed in interviews following the film’s release. One needn’t read an interview with the filmmaker to see the hints that the film gives its viewers though. Ed Harris, who shows up early in the film, is revealed to have a scar along his ribcage, and soon afterwards, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. He is Adam and she is Eve. The two of them go where they are forbidden—Bardem’s study—and Eve drops the shining stone that Bardem and Lawrence tell them not to touch. This is the forbidden fruit. In order to further stress that we should understand the Biblical parallels, Harris and Pfeiffer’s two sons show up, with one killing the other. Cain and Abel. And that’s just the first third of the movie.
By the end of film, in case we’ve missed it, Bardem literally tells Lawrence, “I am I,” meaning that he is God. This is potentially stunning for the audience. If we missed the prior connections, we’ve perhaps understood Bardem as a frustrated creator, one who is successful only because his wife tends to his emotional and physical needs, and one who is too eager to allow his fawning fans to stroke his ego. Bardem clears up all of this in the final scene though. He explains to Lawrence that he must create—he is the Creator—and her love is the price that we pay for creation. He is a jealous God, as the saying goes. He requires the undying affection of Lawrence, and he offers little in worldly return.
For most of the film, we’ve perhaps questioned this relationship. Our sympathies inevitably go with Lawrence, and the actress herself has said that mother! is a feminist movie. To see her world inundated with people making demands on her and ignoring her wants and needs is to see patriarchy in action, moviegoers might believe. But in the film’s denouement, Bardem has been validated. Lawrence’s suffering is simply the cost of life. In this way, the film echoes another stunning movie with a problematic message, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To be in the world is simply to suffer. If you’re lucky, you might have the chance to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation in the midst of your pain.
And why should people get to have any fun anyways? After all, humans are simply no good in mother!. They are consistently impetuous, lusty, craven, and violent. And as a mass, they appear to be the cause of all of society’s problems. That mother! is meant to be a trek through history is made explicit in the third act, when the stages of modernity—industrialism, revolution, fascism—play out inside the contrastingly bucolic house in which Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem live. Darren Aronofsky is once again drawing on a familiar narrative language here. Consider this year’s Wonder Woman. Humans, in its telling of history, are necessarily flawed by their very nature. Organized into nations and compelled by industrialism, they become inevitably the means of their own destruction. Peace, for Lawrence, is a house without people, just as peace for the Amazonians of Wonder Woman is a world without humans.
Aronofsky’s allegory isn’t perfect. For example, why are Adam and Eve insufferable even before they pluck the forbidden fruit? A strict read of mother! also leaves the cyclical nature of the film up for interpretation. Does the destruction and rebirth in the film’s final moments represent the “Sixth Extinction,” the idea that global warming will eventually lead to a massive drop-off in the Earth’s population?
Consider also that we might understand Lawrence as representing both Mother Earth and a righteous and true mortal believer in God. Contrast Lawrence with the worshippers that come to the house. They represent zealots and radicals, believers who use God as an excuse to commit acts of hedonism, irresponsibility, and murder. Lawrence by contrast, gets nothing in return for her true and earnest love. She is questioning, to be sure. Like Job, she confronts God explicitly, in the scene just before they make love. And also like Job, she suffers endlessly. Nevertheless, she is clearly the film’s model human character, even if she isn’t meant to be human. This is why she is shown to be the most giving of her love at the end of the film. The story is only asking that we might emulate her.
In this, mother! inverts the sympathies of Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal. In Bergman’s story, the message is that camaraderie should be privileged over suffering and dogma. The heroes of the movie, members of a traveling comedy troupe, are those figures that take comfort and joy in one another’s company. Faced with the prospect of a life that may be harsh and unfair, they revel in the pleasures that humanity might provide before death. These characters are contrasted with the flagellants, who respond to the bubonic plague with unyielding and masochistic piety. Flagellants believe they will be rewarded for their penitence in the hereafter. And Lawrence, in her final scene, is presumably, finally, brought to a state of peace when she gives the last of what she has in life to God. But Ingmar Bergman’s comedy troupe believes in no such bargain.
mother! is likely not aware of all of its messages. Like all filmmakers, artists, and thinkers, Aronofsky is drawing subconsciously from the codes and narratives that readily exist in the ether of our culture. So we should understand the movie’s meanings in terms of their intersections with dominant tropes or discourses. For example, mother!’s misanthropy might best be understood through its clear debt to Lockean notions of property rights. Lawrence is emotionally invested in her and Bardem’s property. Her whole motivation is to repair the free-standing, socially isolated house that sits in a bucolic landscape, a paradise that will inevitably be lost to creeping civilization. The loss is triggered by the arrival of people. And not just other people, but all other people. Lawrence repeatedly laments the way that others are acting as interlopers, trespassers, and spoilers of her land and her property. God might be the creator, but she is the maker, and they are the takers. She is putting value into her property through her productive labor, which according to Locke, makes it hers and hers alone.
If mother! is about the environment, as its director suggests, then its approach is to argue that nature needs to be cordoned off for a select, privileged few, lest it be trammeled and despoiled by the masses. In this it calls to mind Jedediah Purdy’s excellent history of American environmentalism, After Nature. Purdy takes aim at the links between environmentalism and misanthropy, as well as those between environmentalism and elitism. The dominant environmentalism of the United States, one largely born in the post-Enlightenment Romantic liberalism of the 19th century, is one shaped by “an impulse to disown collective power” and to deny that “conscience is itself a social thing.” (146) It was, and remains, the province of those seeking to escape or discover one’s self as a kind of spiritual process. It is solitary and individualistic, a domain of privilege cut off from the experience and ecology of daily life. Purdy argues instead for a collective solution, a “democracy open to the strange intuitions of post-humanism” (282). But democracy is sorely missing from mother!. Similarly, the film echoes the misanthropic wing of the discourse of the anthropocene, in which global warming is not blamed on runaway industrial capitalism, but on the entirety of the behavior of man instead. (See my notes on Wonder Woman.)
Critiques of modernity come in all shapes and sizes, and we would do well to challenge progressive narratives about mankind’s progress as mother! does. An excellent example of a critique of modernity is Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, which locates in the liberal Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism the roots of the present world’s ills. Mishra, for his part, looks to Jean-Jacques Rousseau for a kind of prototypical (though by no means perfect) critic of modernity. Rousseau believed that modernity was causing people to become obsessed with status and signifiers of wealth, and that Enlightenment changes were destroying the pre-existing tendencies of humans to cooperate with one another and exacerbating inequality. Rousseau, like Marx, believed that humanity could be compassionate, and that its promise lay in social relations. We can take from Rousseau an understanding that rights arise out of consent rather than God or nature, and one that sees oppression as more than simply the opposite of political freedom and the reductive notion of free will.
And we can add our own post-humanist spin. We can assert, contrary to Rousseau, that there is no abstract state of nature, and there never was; our faith is best placed in the belief that we ourselves are constituted by one another and the world that we make together. If this is a critique of modernity, call me a critic.
Yet mother! draws on an entirely different tradition of criticism of modernity. It suggests that hell is other people. In its depiction of the idyllic Eden, it taps into the American Jeffersonian fantasy of a self-sufficient agrarian existence. It girds this with Lockean property fetishism. And then gilds it with a fear of the masses. For all of its provocative dress, it is, as the NPR critic Glen Weldon pointed out, a puzzle that already solves itself for you. It’s a call to inaction and resignation.