Love Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! or hate it, and you will have plenty of company either way, it’s a movie worth thinking and talking about. At The Film Stage, Brian Roan rails against the attempts to decode its meaning as a pernicious outgrowth of “explainer culture,” in which art is approached as a puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery to be pondered, but one of the things that’s exhilarating about the movie is the multitude of plausible but apparently incompatible interpretations it’s spawned. Is it an ecological allegory, with Javier Bardem as an absent-minded god and Jennifer Lawrence as a frazzled Mother Earth? A horror movie about egocentric male artists and the women who thanklessly support them? Or are Bardem and Lawrence playing two halves of the creative psyche, he the public-facing glory hound, she the tender of fragile ideas? Maybe it’s about gaslighting, or the trauma of unwanted houseguests, or what a shitty partner Aronofsky was to Rachel Weisz. Or the Bible? (Definitely the Bible.)
Mother! is evocative enough to sustain all these explanations and more. But there is one person who needs to stop explaining what Mother! is about, and that person is its writer-director, Darren Aronofsky.
In the buildup to Mother!’s release, Aronofsky kept mum about the movie’s subject, and Paramount’s marketing followed suit. (The “F” grade the film received from the audience-rating service CinemaScore is a good gauge of how little theatrical audiences knew what they were in for.) But since its premiere, he has scarcely been able to keep his mouth shut. Aronofsky has been vague about minor details like why the title’s “M” is lowercase or what the yellow tincture is that Lawrence keeps pouring into her water glass, but he’s talked at length, if not always consistently, about the film as a parable of climate change and impending environmental catastrophe—an issue that frequently engages Aronofsky in his time between films. As the New York Times summarizes it:
“Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. (Walking the wooden floorboards in bare feet is what finally got the part to click, Ms. Lawrence said.) The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.
Mother’s plot draws heavily on the Bible: Ed Harris’ character, identified in the credits as Man, shows up alone, then manifests a wound where his rib might once have been; he’s followed by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Woman, and then by their two sons, one of whom kills the other. But there’s no Biblical analogue for Lawrence’s character, and Aronofsky, who is not religiously observant, has played down the Biblical parallel as more of a structural gimmick than an end in itself. That goes too for what seem to be its unavoidably autobiographical elements, which Bardem’s poet neglects his wife while catering to the adulation of his fans, whom he can’t bear to turn away even as his long-suffering wife begs for a little piece and quiet. “The fame stuff is purely a side effect,” he told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson. “When I was writing I wasn’t seeking comment about that, it was about the allegorical sense of worship.”
Humans being fallible creatures, artists’ explanations of the work they intended to make are often more intriguing than the work itself. But one hallmark of great art is that it’s about more than its creators intended, or at least that it allows people other than the artist(s) to find their own meaning in it. To his credit, Aronofsky isn’t shutting down alternate interpretations of his movie, but he also can’t resist providing his own: He’s like a magician so pleased with his own trick he can’t wait to show you how it’s done.
Besides indulging the intentional fallacy, Aronofsky’s willingness to provide a decoder ring for his own movie robs its of its richness, and tying it to a single overriding theme exposes, or even creates, flaws in its overall schema. If Bardem is God and Lawrence is Gaia, then what are we to make of God’s vanity, his lust for adulation and his willingness to ignore his greatest creation’s cries for help? (What are the Judeo-Christian God and a pagan personification even doing in the same story?) Doesn’t it undermine the movie’s environmental message to suggest that our present earth is only the latest in an apparently infinite cycle of creation and destruction? Even more than the holes in its plot, the narrow parsing of Mother! as an ecological fable doesn’t account for its off-the-wall style, its free mixture of horrific and comic tones, or the bravura complexity of Lawrence’s performance. (According to Aronofsky, fully 66 of its 115 minutes are a close-up of her face.) Aronofsky’s description of Mother! is a lot duller than the movie he actually made.
Aronofsky’s explanations don’t detract from Mother! the way, say, Richard Kelly’s did from Donnie Darko, when it became clear that some of the movie’s most prized qualities were there by accident, and his attempts to improve it with a director’s cut only made it worse. But it’s a lesser movie when it’s tied to a single reading, or even a principal one. In some ways, it’s a movie about the process of making meaning itself, of trying to form a coherent thought amid the nonstop din of life and the omnipresent howl of death. Darren Aronofsky had his say when he made Mother! Now it’s our turn.
Correction, July 19: This article originally referred to Darren Aronofsky as Rachel Weisz’s ex-husband. The two never married.