Aronofsky has a very specific style and very specific interests. I think the unexpected commercial success of “Black Swan” and the confused (even coopted?) marketing of “Noah” positioned Aronofsky as someone he wasn’t. “mother!” feels to me more an assertion of Aronofsky’s particular style and sensibilities rather than a tilt at further mainstream success, the way the marketing (and endless, endless reactions to that marketing) took it. The film might synthesise the counter-intuitive “Christian” elements of “Noah” (in reality much more Jewish and much more Gnostic than whatever the superficial Christian iconography made it seem) with the reality-breaking escalation of “Black Swan”, but it seems to me its own beast informed by Aronofsky’s peculiarities rather than a play at widespread commercial success. Even the casting of Jennifer Lawrence seems more an emulation of the muse aspects of the script (behind-the-scenes developments certainly play into that) rather than pure commercial stunt casting as with Emma Watson in “Noah”.
So, with that context out of the way, can “mother!” be taken on its own terms? I still don’t really think so. Even divorcing the film from its commercial performance and reception, Aronofsky’s own confused dialogue about the film is fascinating in its own right and how it informs the film. After release, Aronofsky acted like the anti-Lynch, spelling out its supposed meaning to anyone who would ask. He asserts the film is an episodic Biblical allegory, adapting Biblical stories in sequence with the film’s characters as stand-ins for Biblical figures, with environmentalist elements. That certainly fits with Aronofsky’s identity, his environmentalism is well-known, and he’s not shy about his fascination with religion, particularly the Bible. But I think for all he touts the film as metaphor, it’s a somewhat superficial “explanation”. The characters and plot are thin enough that to whatever extent the film is a metaphor or an avatar for symbolic story arguably falls away, the film itself is a fable writ large instead of a shell containing another story. The film IS the “other story”. That’s not a criticism in the slightest, all films are dreams, it’s no great step to do away with an arbitrary distinction of reality in a story, any more than “it was all a dream” is necessary to justify supernatural happenings in a film.
However, I do struggle with how quickly Aronofsky tried to reduce his own film. David Lynch has a quote I love about cinema, and why he refrains from elaborating on the “actual” meaning of his films – “The film is the thing. You work so hard after ideas come to get this thing built, and all the elements to feel correct, in this beautiful language we call cinema. The second it’s finished, people want you to change it back into words”. Indeed, “mother!” is a film. It is not an interview. It is not a Reddit AMA. It is not an “explanation”. It is a film. Immediately reducing it and dulling its impact bothers me, as I enjoyed the actual cinematic experience of…a work of cinema, more than its own director trying to make it so small.
Lynch goes on to say “When things are concrete, there are very few variations and interpretations. The more abstract a thing gets, the more varied the interpretations. But people still know inside what it is for them. You come up with many, many different things as you go along as a detective. It’s a ghost story for you”. He was referring to Mulholland Drive, and the way it was a ghost story for the interviewer. It’s not a ghost story for everyone. And “mother!” isn’t just a Biblical allegory to everyone. It can be to Aronofsky but I don’t think a viewer even needs to reach far to intuitively come to different takes, like the film being a meditation on the self-destructive nature of artists, or even a justification for Aronofsky’s own ego (I’ll leave what the film might be stating about age differences in relationships with Jennifer Lawrence to the imagination). In interviews, the two main stars themselves pivot away from Aronofsky’s own interpretation, Lawrence seeing it as a more purely environmental tale, and Bardem as a take on the writing process.
Perhaps it’s in stirring up so much debate and offering so many alternative interpretations (that people are quick to fight over, no less) that the film truly does work as a metaphor for the Bible. I may not have enjoyed a lot of the dialogue around the film, but I certainly enjoyed the film itself. Four hearts, and a shard of glass.