I wrote earlier this week about “Mother!,” Darren Aronofsky’s new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, describing it as the story of an artist who, in his vanity, makes his partner’s life hell. Then, in several interviews, Aronofsky and Lawrence (they’re also a couple in real life) told the public what the movie is really about. On Collider, Aronofsky was quoted as saying that “the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth. . . . I sort of wanted to tell the story of Mother Nature from her point of view.” In the Times, Lawrence revealed the allegory in more detail, explaining, as paraphrased by Melena Ryzik, that “ ‘Mother!’ is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem),” and that “the movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.”
There’s a special kind of movie that invites questions from viewers and answers of the sort that Aronofsky offered, W.T.F. movies in which the drama itself is utterly unclear. Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” is an earlier example; “Inception” and the Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return” are recent ones. The questions that many viewers are likely to come out with are the basic ones: What’s the story? What’s happening? Who’s doing what to whom? Who are the characters? “Mother!” is not that kind of film. Its action is clear and linear; at any given moment, the identities of the characters and their relationships to one another are clear. A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is renovating the house that she lives in with her partner (Javier Bardem). He is a writer, and when a fan and his wife show up at the house the man welcomes them, because he welcomes the appreciation, and then he extends his welcome to an extreme but plausible extent. Then, in the second part of the film, the woman is pregnant and the man starts writing again. His book becomes a big success at exactly the point that her pregnancy is nearly at term, and, when fans arrive at their house while she’s in labor, horrific trouble ensues.
What renders “Mother!” somewhat difficult to understand isn’t its complexity but, rather, its simplicity. The action is so far out front, detached from backstory or worldly complications, that the psychology of the protagonists is nearly effaced. The characters are nameless, and their identities are nearly limited to what’s seen of them on the screen. The psychological causality of the action is of a nearly mechanical, windup obviousness—but those relationships are displayed in utter isolation from context and character. Unlike in “Twin Peaks” or “Inception,” what needs explanation in “Mother!” isn’t who or what but why. Yet my feeling about asking a director what a movie’s about is the same as the response, attributed both to Louis Armstrong and to Fats Waller, that is given to a listener who asks a musician what jazz is: If you have to ask, you’ll never know.
Last week, in the Guardian, Caspar Salmon wrote a piece titled “Talk is cheap: will anyone save us from the waking nightmare of director Q&As?” In it, he states, “The succession of images that are still floating about as so many evanescent moments and memories in your mind at the end of a movie will always be catastrophically disrupted by an earnest discussion about the audition process.” I agree: the better a movie is, the less I want to hear a discussion about it—with the director or anyone else—immediately afterward. I very much want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work—a little later, not right after a screening. Good directors’ interviews are almost always worthwhile, not for what they say about their films but as a parallel track of creation. I think that the inclination on the part of critics to drink in the remarks of filmmakers is tied both to the fear of not getting something right and to the underlying academic habit of tying a film into a filmmaker’s, or auteur’s, thought system and body of work.
The interview, the Q. & A., and the director’s statement serve another purpose altogether: to steer the reception of the film. They are, in effect, advertising aimed at a very narrowly targeted set of viewers—namely, film critics—and Aronofsky, even before this week’s round of interviews, engaged in an unusual form of that marketing at the movie’s press screenings. The photocopied press notes featured a poem on the front page, and then duplicated that poem on a small card, printed on heavy stock, that was handed to viewers by publicists, who added that it was being given to them at Aronofsky’s own request. It’s a version of The Lord’s Prayer, adapted by Rebecca Solnit, that opens, “Our mother who art underfoot.” I saw it; I read it, then I said to myself, “Whatever,” and I watched the movie. I didn’t, and don’t, place any more interpretive value on this poem than I would on the movie’s trailer—despite its having been offered by Aronofsky himself. (It’s of interest regarding Aronofsky’s own personality, and it’s an element of his biography, of his career; that not the same thing as considering the movie in its light.)
It’s true, and obvious, that there are touches of religious symbolism in the film, which is to say, elements that viewers with even a casual familiarity with the Judeo-Christian heritage should pick up, including a brutal fight between two brothers that virtually shouts Cain and Abel. There’s a flood, but it’s one that has nothing to do with the Flood; there’s a birth, but it’s not a virgin one; and the celebration by fans of the newborn hardly suggests its divinity. (For that matter, if God has sex with Mother Earth, who is His creation, then it’s incest, but Aronofsky films it with a tame banality that in no way suggests any taboo has been broken or any cosmic law defied.) Aronofsky has long strained after art of a vast mythopoetic magnitude. In “Mother!,” he achieves it—but not at all in the way that he thinks. This morning, on Twitter, someone asked me, “What was the point of the biblical references if the movie is basically about how much it sucks to be in a relationship with a male artist?,” to which my response was, “Exactly.” In other words, “Mother!” isn’t an allegory except by directorial decree.
What directors—especially the good ones—put into their films is different from what comes out of the viewing of those films. Directors are an authority on the former, which is why an interview with a good director is almost always worthwhile. But, when it comes to the experience of watching a film, the director doesn’t know any more or any better than the average viewer. One great director who understands this is Jean-Luc Godard, who discussed the matter with me when I interviewed him in 2000. We were talking about “La Chinoise,” his 1967 collage-like drama about a cell of young Maoists in Paris and their inclinations toward political violence, which, I thought, he filmed with a significant degree of critical distance. He agreed, but said that, at the time of the filming, his critical perspective was “unconscious,” adding, “My unconscious was right, but it’s the cinema that was right, more or less right. What people say about it isn’t necessarily right; often what the auteur says is even less right, because the auteur is in what he does, not in what he says.”
In “Mother!,” Aronofsky works wonders with his cinematic unconscious, tapping into its fury and turmoil to create a film that, while taking off from an arid Biblical allegory, is in fact a literal drama of personal relationships in a world of middle-aged artists and younger women, very much like the one in which he has worked for decades. In the film, it’s the writer’s will, the effort to break out of an ordinary life through the strength of his artistic creation, that sets the movie, and Aronofsky’s cinematic world, into grotesque and fascinating motion. Fortunately, the movie he made is much more interesting than the one he thought he made.
Do you struggle to pay for you and your daughter’s needs?
Every day. A day does not go by that I do not struggle.
Can you describe your financial struggles some?
I do not get paid enough. Trying to pay for everything is hard. I have to pay for babysitting, rent, and everything in between. A baby has many needs. There are many times that I worry about having enough money for diapers or I have to borrow money for gas just so I can get to work. I cannot afford anything for myself, my daughter’s needs are number one and I make sure they are filled first.
Recently, I needed a new pair of shoes. My shoes had holes in them, and I had to wait until my baby had everything she needed before I could take care of myself. I had to wait an entire month before I could buy a pair of sneakers for work. Since I cannot count on child support, my needs are on hold until I can give my daughter what she needs first.
Why do you not press for child support?
I do not have the money to go to court. The paperwork is $207.00 and then I wonder, what is the point of trying to get something out of someone when they cannot hold a job?
Do you get any kind of assistance?
I get food stamps and WIC.
Do you get any emotional support from family and friends?
I have the best family and my friends are good too. They listen when I complain about my issues; they give me advice and hope that I listen. I can lean on my family for help and they understand me. I have really great support
What happens if your car breaks down and you do not have the money to fix it?
I work my magic and bat my eyelashes (laughing), and hope that someone will help me or let me make payment plans. Most of the time, I hope that there is nothing wrong with my car and hope for the best.
Can you describe a typical weekday?
I wake up at 5:20am jump in the shower and get ready for work, wake up my baby, change her diaper and clothes. I leave the house by 6:00am drop her off at the babysitters then I have to be to work for 7:00am. I leave work at 3:00pm. Sometimes I do errands before I get the baby. Than we after I pick her up we are home for the night. I cook supper and give my daughter her supper, clean her mess, give her a bath, and then put her pj’s on. We are both in bed by 9:00pm.
What is your favorite part about being a new mother?
I cannot say there is just one favorite part. There is so much that I love about being a mom, especially when she sees me after a long day and her face lights up. I love taking naps and snuggling with her and playing with her. I also love it when she wants to sit in my lap, the list can go on forever!
What is your biggest struggle with being a single mother?
Not having the help that I need, there is so much that I struggle with. It would have been nice to have someone there during the nights when she wakes up every now and then or to help put the groceries away because my daughter never lets me do this. Taking care of her needs always come first and it means I have to wait to put things away. It would have been nice to have help with all the lugging around of her things too. A baby has a lot of luggage that gets carted around on a daily basis.