Magazine | October 16, 2017, Issue

Appetite for Creation

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother! (Paramount Pictures)

The universe rests on two divine principles, one masculine and one feminine. The masculine principle is restless and creative, the feminine principle nurturing and custodial. The masculine principle feeds on conflict, suffering, desire, loss; the feminine principle thrives on beauty, stability, order. The masculine principle draws on the feminine principle’s love in order to create, but wounds and weakens Her every time He does. This pushes the universe into a cycle, in which the eternal He is perpetually allowing the eternal She and what they make together to be pillaged, mistreated, ravaged, abused, and even crucified, in order to further His creative visions, His dream of a constantly outspreading love. And at a certain point Her patience runs out, and She turns on Him and on creation itself, bringing on the apocalypse and setting a new cycle into motion.

I’m not sure about every detail of this cosmology — it’s possible that the masculine principle precedes the feminine principle rather than being co-eternal — but I’ll leave that to future theologians to wrangle over in the ecumenical councils that will doubtless be called to figure out exactly what to make of the weirdest, most hateable, most blasphemous and ridiculous and also kind-of-fascinating movie of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

For now, I’ve told you all you need to know to feel smarter than everyone else in the theater should you see it. When they walk out with a what-the-holy-heckity-frick-was-that look on their face, you can consult the world-picture sketched above and say, with some authority, Well, you see, the universe rests . . . etc., etc. If someone is still standing there when you’ve finished, you’ve made a friend for life. And if anyone says, “But I thought it was a movie about real estate and the folly of renovating old houses,” just say, “Well, it’s that too.”

The home renovator, to use the non-theological level of plot summary, is a young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence, listed as Mother in the credits, who inhabits a vast, drafty, and rattling Victorian that’s set down without paths or driveways in the middle of a golden meadow, circumscribed by distant woods. Her home has been fixed up from a prior burned-out state of disrepair (the antique kitchen is particularly lovely), but some of the wings are still a bit derelict, the basement is a clammy tomb, and she spends her days working in the unfinished spaces, pondering paint colors (yellow is a strong contender), and worrying about her man.

That man, hereafter Him, is played by Javier Bardem as a monster of artistic ego, a writer with a God complex that really makes sense only once you recognize (I’m not spoiling anything; if you’ve read Genesis you’ll recognize what’s going on pretty quickly) that God is exactly who he’s supposed to be. He has a creative block, which his beautiful wife (“my goddess,” he calls her) and gradually transforming house (“I want to make a paradise,” she says) have not managed to undo, and it’s also affecting his performance in the bedroom. But there is a solution to his writer’s block: He just needs their fixer-upper solitude to be disrupted by a steadily increasing cast of violent, obnoxious, needy human beings.

The first to arrive — or to appear, you might even say ex nihilo — is a nameless Man played by Ed Harris, who turns out to be an immense fan of his host’s first book. He is welcomed and given a room, despite protests from Lawrence’s Mother, and once they’ve welcomed him, his wife, Woman, turns up the next day. Played by Michelle Pfeiffer, she slinks around the house eyeing a precious jewel — a forbidden fruit, one might say — that the guests aren’t supposed to touch. They do, of course, and thereafter things go from bad to worse: Their sons show up, one kills the other, the house gets crowded, and then a pipe bursts and everything floods and Mother chases them all out.

That’s the first act; from there things get weirder, more gonzo, and ultimately horrifying once Mother finally has the baby that the title tells us to expect. No further spoilers, but again, you can read the Bible if you like: The allegory is not precisely subtle, even if I’m still trying to figure out which Biblical figure Kristen Wiig, who shows up briefly as Him’s publicist, is supposed to represent.

But it’s a Biblical allegory with a very non-Biblical theology. In Noah, his last movie, which many people hated but I partially admired, Aronofsky did something interesting with the source material: He relocated God’s ambivalence about the human race in the flood story into the character of Noah, making the ark-builder wrestle with whether humanity deserves to survive the flood. In Mother! the same basic question is at issue, but this time the deck is stacked against the human race: From the first shot to the last, we see everything from the baffled, abused point of view of the extra-Biblical Mother Earth/Sacred Feminine, who gets ignored and mistreated and taken for granted and despoiled, when all she wants to do is be alone with God and finish decorating His house!

Aronofsky has told interviewers that he was thinking about climate change while making Mother! and you can read the movie as a kind of anti-humanist, borderline-nihilist eco-fable in which the world would have been perfect if our species hadn’t come along to mess things up. Or you can shake yourself free from the feminine principle’s “don’t touch that sink!” perspective and see things from the point of view of Bardem’s Him and his creations. In that case, you’d end up with the cosmology I started with, in which both He and She have a role to play in keeping the whole drama going.

If this theological noodling has exhausted you, you’ll probably be exasperated by the movie. And it is exasperating — and suffocating and strange and perverse and kind of terrible. But a certain kind of moviegoer will be transfixed. You might be one of them. There’s only one way to find out.

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