The Potent, but Ultimately Prosaic, Madness of Mother!

In the world of art, occasionally a work appears that breaches conventional boundaries and presents something hitherto unconceived & unexpressed, something hitherto unknown to its audience. All such works inspire a certain elemental curiosity in the viewer, and that is the first marker of true art.

For some such works, curiosity is followed by the sensation of enjoyment, of pleasure, perhaps even of awe. Surely when first gazing up Monet’s rising sun, Soleil Levant, Parisians must have asked themselves exactly what it was that they were looking at. But in the very same breath they also knew that whatever it was, they liked it. The same can be said of Michelangelo’s Sistine, which universally elicits superlative description, regardless of the viewer’s familiarity with the theological context.

However, works of singular artistic merit, works very much in the same league as Monet’s & Michelangelo’s, are not always pleasing to the senses. They can, in fact, be quite the opposite. For instance, Duchamp’s Fountain presents a proposition so disorienting that most in the art world still do not know what to make of it. Nevertheless, that revolting piece of porcelain endures in our collective consciousness.

We at The Neanderthal would suggest that Aronofsky’s Mother! is very much like Duchamp’s Fountain.

Now! By this we are not backhandedly implying comparison between Mother! and public urinals – though some would certainly agree with that characterization. Rather what we wish to say is that M! is an important work. Aronofsky’s, much like Duchamp’s, evokes discomfort, even disgust, but we cannot look away.

At first sight, M! is an incomprehensible cacophonous hodge-podge, which starts serenely but slowly descends into madness. And what madness it is, complete and utter bedlam, comparable only to the lowest reaches of hell. There is assault, rape, arson, and the eating of infantile flesh. The one other movie that comes easily to mind is Funny Games, the Michael Haneke original, which portrays a similar downward spiral. We can’t remember if the third wall is breached, but nonetheless the totality of M! is terrifying.

If all we had of Mother! was what we saw on the screen, then we’d be left scratching our heads, trying to fit an explanation to its mess of a storyline. Many of the biblical references are quite obvious, from the murderous pair of brothers (Cain & Abel, played by real-life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), to Ash Wednesday, to the Eucharist. But a unifying narrative for all of the film’s themes is still elusive on first viewing. Fortunately, Aronofsky & crew have provided us with exactly that: Mother! is an allegory about climate change, grounded in Christian theology. That is how Aronofsky wrote and directed M!, and that is how it is most easily understood. Viewed under this lens, suddenly the movie comes to life, in sharper focus and with much greater impact.

Some might question the validity of imposing a fiat interpretation on a work of art, like so. Isn’t the experience of art subjective, in the eye of the beholder? Indeed, ultimately art belongs to its viewers. But authorial intent matters and it per se deserves consideration, particularly for a piece as complex as Mother!.

The crew behind Mother! set out to do one single thing – to depict a searing indictment of humanity’s impact on the environment. And then to jolt us into realizing how horrific and how imminent the repercussions of our actions are. Coming to this realization is uncomfortable, and the process of getting there is jarring, almost nauseating. The grotesqueness of the storyline escalates unrelentingly, the visuals become more schizophrenic, the sound effects louder, the violence more extreme. And at each juncture we are clutching for dear life, bracing for whatever is to come next, and wondering how it all finally ends. And that is exactly what the writers & producers intended, to leave us feeling raw, perturbed, and fearful, very much on edge, with a gnawing sense of doom.

In this sense the film is powerful. Mother! conveys the magnitude of the environmental crisis in front of us, and it ushers us to the sense of urgency that is required to address it. That is the social message of the film and its principal objective, and Mother! handily succeeds on these terms.

But… As a work of art, we find Mother! falling a bit short of the pantheon. While M! is moving, it lacks some of the finer traits that could have earned it a place in film school textbooks. It has not the finesse of Rosemary’s Baby, nor the intrigue of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – two other films that we would compare directly to it in terms of subject & style. From the Director’s own oeuvre, we find Requiem to be a more compelling expression of his craft. In the end, we view Mother! as a punch to the gut, which is its intended purpose and we thank it for taking on the environmental mantle. We just wish that it was as finely honed a work of art as it is an experiment in social activism.