A few weeks ago, when Darren Aronofsky’s aggressively out-there WTF head-trip horror movie “mother!” was oozing onto the radar, it seemed likely to be one of those films that provokes a fiercely divided response. Whatever scandals the movie had in store for us, one contingent, you could imagine, would embrace the outrage; the other would recoil from it. (That’s the way these things tend to go.) An early piece in The Guardian, out of London, suggested that “mother!” might be the most controversial film to emerge from a major studio since “A Clockwork Orange,” and that’s the kind of advertising you can’t buy. A hot potato like “mother!” doesn’t come along every day, or even every year, so it’s fun to be able to say: Let the shock — and fiery debates — begin!
But now that “mother!” has arrived in theaters, it’s proving to be a divisive film, though not in the way I described. The two camps might be summed up as follows: There are those who, like me, find the movie to be an overly busy and self-fixated provocation, with a superficially diverting what’s-going-to-happen-next? quality that doesn’t, in the end, add up to all that much. And then there are the Enlightened Ones: the ones who resist the vulgar calls for mere drama and coherence and welcome the opportunity to experience the film on a heady stoned level of symbolic deep-think. To this contingent (which, at this point, I would say describes the bulk of the reviews), “mother!” is a uniquely artful and visionary experience because it’s no mere story, no mere head-scratcher, but a great big swirling ball of metaphor. It is — to use the buzzword of the moment — an allegory.
I don’t know about you, but the sound of the word allegory makes me go to sleep a little. I love any number of films that are allegories (“The Seventh Seal,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Woman in the Dunes,” “The Tree of Life,” and — yes — “A Clockwork Orange”), but if “mother!” is an allegory, it’s one that’s all work and no fun. It’s an allegory of everything and nothing at the same time.
It was Aronofsky himself who got the allegorical ball rolling by issuing a lengthy “director’s statement” about “mother!” before the picture had even been shown. “It is a mad time to be alive,” he wrote. He then ticked off issues like overpopulation, species extinction, “schizophrenic” U.S. climate-change policy, ancient tribal disputes, the killing of baby dolphins, politics as sports, and our daily state of denial about all of the above. “From this primordial soup of angst and helplessness,” he wrote, “I woke up one morning and this movie poured out of me like a fever dream.”
Fair enough. It’s sometimes the job of a serious movie to channel the madness of the moment. But I saw “mother!,” and wrote a review of it at the Venice Film Festival, without having read Aronofsky’s statement, and the movie I saw was a quirky hermetic chamber drama in which the defining quality of the characters is how thinly drawn they are (from scene one, Javier Bardem’s blocked writer is a glowering cold jerk; Jennifer Lawrence’s wife is all willowy supportive innocence), and then some visitors show up, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who are over-the-top in their intrusive oddity, yet everyone seems naggingly cut off from the rest of the world, and so does the movie.
For a while, the quarrelsome drama is like the Edward Albee version of “Green Acres,” with Lawrence’s put-upon wife as the annoyed and perplexed Oliver Douglas character (everyone seems to be in on a conspiracy to make her feel like she’s the only one who doesn’t know why what’s happening is happening). On top of that, Aronofsky layers haunted-house tropes that root the movie, if not in the real world, then in the overly familiar world of megaplex genre pulp. His tropes are a bit more outré (a live pumping heart that seems to emerge from the walls, a floorboard bloodstain in the shape of a vagina), but our visceral reaction to this stuff is that it’s something that wouldn’t look out of place in a James Wan movie. It’s sometimes fun, but it signifies…very little.
Yet that, apparently, is where I have my blinders on. For as I’ve learned over the last few weeks, “mother!” is nothing but signifiers. It’s all an allegory. But an allegory of what?
The movie has been called a Biblical parable, with the Victorian octagonal house that Lawrence is renovating, surrounded by nothing but a stretching land of country green (no driveway!), as the Garden of Eden, and the other family that enters the picture, with its clashing adult sons, as a nod to Cain and Abel, and the broken sink symbolizing the Flood, and so on. None of this ever occurred to me, but if that’s what’s up there, it may suggest nothing so much as an allegory of Hollywood, with Aronofsky, like so many directors, recycling tried-and-true elements from his last film — in this case, the Old Testament hit “Noah.” Another layer of allegory in “mother!” descends from the title, and from the character names in the credits: Lawrence is playing “mother” (lower-case “m”), who is really Mother Earth, and Bardem is playing “Him” (capitalized), who is actually God.
At the same time, the film’s theme, pinging off the “Green Acres” factor, has been described in more than one place as “hell is other people.” As someone who’s often been more than a little guilty of feeling that way, I’m always up for a good hell-is-other-people movie. Yet the hell in “mother!” mostly consists of other people, like Pfeiffer’s overly noodgy and blaring drunk, acting in very broad ways that other people don’t tend to act.
There’s a fanboy element to the prospect of deconstructing what “mother!” is about. Instead of just sitting back and watching, you enter a video-game universe where nothing is what it seems and you learn how to master the game by deciphering what everything signifies. And in this case, it’s fanboy meets film snob. More than anything, “mother!” seems like a movie designed to please and flatter your inner grad student. If you can delineate the allegory, then you’re in the club. The club of people who get it! As opposed to a dumb-ass like me.
Yet reading some of the reviews of “mother!” has been, frankly, a more befuddling experience than “mother!” itself. Even those who love the movie can’t seem to agree on what it’s about. They appear to be high on the idea that this movie could give them a high. We’ve probably seen a mere preview of the treatises to come, on film-geek websites and in university cinema classes. Can “Divine Ghost in the Patriarchal Machine: Misogyny and the Fall in ‘mother!'” be far behind?
Here’s the problem. I do think that Darren Aronofsky meant to make a movie of many layers. It’s not that I don’t believe the “allegorical” levels of “mother!” exist. It’s that they’re too abstract — a theoretical frosting spread over the literal-minded cake of the movie itself. Allegory can be like that. You could take the worst horror film of the year, about an innocent couple on their honeymoon torn apart by their encounter with a demon, set that movie on an idyllic tropical island and call the demon “Snake,” and voilà! — you have the Adam and Eve story. But who cares? The allegory of “mother!” demonstrates that a movie can mean a whole lot without what it means meaning anything. And the box-office grosses of “mother!,” coupled with a rare F from CinemaScore, suggest that if satire is what closes on Saturday night, allegory is what crashes and burns on opening weekend (even if your lead actress is the biggest movie star on the planet).
Aronofsky, of course, ultimately brings the outside world smashing into “mother!” The world of fame and fan worship, of cataclysm and war. You could hardly miss those meanings, since the film hits you over the head with them. And critics, in their inflated rush to allegorize everything in “mother!,” have been quick to lump in the theme of the artist and his muse. But that theme isn’t an allegory in “mother!” It’s simply a basic dimension of the movie, executed in an overstated way, with Bardem as a celebrity poet (a celebrity poet? In 2017?) and Lawrence crushed by the surge of fame — the crowds, the editors, the handlers — that swirls around him.
That’s a good subject for a horror film, and maybe, as some have suggested, it represents Aronofsky drawing on his own experience as a highly celebrated Hollywood artist. (More than one wag has asked, “I wonder what Rachel Weisz” — Aronofsky’s ex-wife — “will make of this movie.”) But just because a movie has a meaning doesn’t make it an allegory. And just because a movie is an allegory doesn’t make it a good movie.