Mother! and the Wisdom of Silenus
I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! when it first came out and I’ve been mulling over it for awhile. I was hesitant to see it because of reports that it was a horror film, but I didn’t think it was difficult to watch in the same way a horror film is. It is unrelenting in the Second Act, but the unrelenting nature is purposeful. Marc Maron had a just awful reading of it on his podcast after he interviewed Aronofsky, but mostly, astute viewers saw the allegory to Christianity and to the price the artist exacts from his material. What I’ve been mulling over are the ways that the film is a critique of Christianity–of God as the artist and of Christianity as a practice of consuming the creations of the artist.
In what is to my mind the central scene of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character realizes that The Poet who represents God is trying to take the newborn baby from her. So she holds the baby to protect it. Eventually she falls asleep, and while she is sleeping, The Poet / God takes the baby and presents it to the people who tear the baby to pieces and liturgically eat the pieces of the baby guided by a priest in a clear depiction of Communion.
It is too simple to say merely that the people cannot accept the Savior that is sent from God, because it is clear that The Poet / God condones or at least accepts the tearing apart of the baby and the ritual that follows. What is striking is that it is Jennifer Lawrence’s character that was the creator of the Savior.
The straightforward interpretation of this move is that Aranofsky is suggesting that Christianity supports a patriarchy that makes God determine the fate of Jesus and denies the role of woman in producing the Savior, in fact, has God rip Jesus from the hands of woman to make Jesus the savior. I’m not convinced by this interpretation because Christianity does acknowledge the source of Jesus in Mary, who mourns Jesus’s death, but is honored in Christianity, while Mother in the film seems more like earth than like a particular person and is ignored as the source of the baby in the film. So I’m inclined to think that the baby that is torn apart that is then cannibalistically consumed in a ritual act is not wholly captured by seeing it as Jesus. I think the suggestion is that religion turns into ritual its destruction in order to justify it, and it leaves unacknowledged the sense in which its ritual is destruction. Christianity itself becomes an ideology that covers over the way it functions to allow the destruction of the earth. Goodness then becomes associated with taking part in the institutionally ratified destruction.
The second strange point I’m trying to understand is the cyclical time suggested by the film, when the destruction of earth leads to a return to a moment that could be the beginning or could be an ongoing repetition. I think this point suggests that Aronofsky is not so much saying that we will destroy the earth, because it does return and continues as the source of inspiration and energy for the Poet / God. Aronofsky depicts the way that material / earth / woman is stuck in a cycle that feeds and allows form / fire / man to create and transform history and meaning, all the while showing how that depends on ignoring the ways that material / earth / woman is powerful and meaningful in her own right.
In a move that is almost too perfect to be unscripted, Jennifer Lawrence told Adam Sandler on Variety’s Actors on Actors series about her experience promoting the film with Aronofsky. To quote Lawrence,
I never really, normally, I promote a movie, put the work into it, promoting it, ask people to go see it, and then it’s just kind of out of your hands. I normally just kind of let it go. Dating the director was different, because, you know, it’s like, we’d be on the tour together. I’d come back to the hotel and the last thing I want to talk about or think about is the movie. He comes back in the door, and it’s all he wants to talk about, and I get it, it’s his baby, he wrote it, he conceived it, he directed it. I was doing double-duty of trying to be a supportive partner, while also being like, can I please, for the love of God, not think about Mother! for one second?
And then a little later in the interview,
No it’s so bizarre, cuz it’s like, you’re so in the zone, you put like your whole soul and like your body, and like you move, to shoot a movie, and you love it, obviously, you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t love it, and then people just destroy it.
Like, holy crap. Lawrence describes the experience of working with Aronofsky as realizing her work was out of her hands, like the baby goes out of her hands in the film. She describes the director as the one who thinks of the work as his baby because he conceived it, and thus needs her support to keep a positive perspective, just as The Poet does in the film. And she describes letting the work of art go into the world and be destroyed by those who consume it.
The suggestion is that the viewers by viewing the work consume and destroy it. If we can carry this back to the film and the ritualized consumption of the baby, it seems that every engagement with art is a ritual practice of destruction that destroys the artist.
The Poet / God is not a sympathetic character in the film, and to the extent that Aronofsky is the creator, it almost seems like a confession or an apology. Another thing that is interesting about the Poet / God not being sympathetic is that it suggests that creation is not something we should be grateful for. It led me to wonder if the point of the film is the wisdom of Silenus: better for earth that we had never been born. Does this also mean for the viewer, or perhaps for Jennifer Lawrence, better that the film had never been made? The irony is that we could never reach the wisdom of Silenus if we had not been born, and the movie couldn’t make the case for it if it had not been made.