Girl on Fire
Movie Review – Mother!
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jenifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer
*Analysis with Spoilers*
Surrealism is anathema to the literal minded movie goer. Those who insist their movies be based on “real world” logic and linear thinking have little patience for its seemingly incomprehensible symbols and nonsensical story lines. Such people will almost certainly hate Mother!, the latest film from writer/director Darren Aronofsky. But to those who understand the visual language of dreams, its narrative non-sequiturs and rampant illogic are a cinematic feast for the psyche. Mother! plays like a dream, one rich with universal themes, but filtered through the personal mythology of its dreamer, Darren Aronofsky.
Virtually all of Aronofsky’s films, though not works of surrealism, have a dream-like, or rather, a nightmarish, quality. He is fond of intense POV shots and odd artifices that convey the troubled emotional and physical states of his compulsive characters, from Pi’s obsessive mathematician, to Black Swan’s mad ballerina, to the crazed addicts of Requiem for a Dream. Mother! is his first foray into the wild frontiers of surrealism and one of his most satisfying films.
The film begins with a short, ambiguous sequence in which a young woman, listed in the credits only as Mother (universal everywoman, Jennifer Lawrence), is surrounded by flames, her face bruised and bloody. Next we see her husband, known only as Him (Javier Bardem), placing a large crystal-like stone on a shelf. As he places it on its stand, the house suddenly transforms from dark to light – the wood, the wallpaper the molding. It’s as if we’re seeing burning wood in reverse motion, slowly unblackening, becoming bright. Cut to a darkened bedroom. The girl who was on fire sits up in bed and says “Baby?”
From there the film settles into a more conventional narrative… initially. Mother and Him live in an old house that she has single-handedly remodeled herself. He’s a writer suffering from writer’s block. When an adoring fan (Ed Harris) and his judgmental wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) suddenly move in the house, Mother becomes uncomfortable. The couple becomes increasingly more invasive until a family squabble turns deadly and reality melts away into something decidedly weirder.
Without the benefit of a pregnancy test, Mother realizes she’s with child. Her deepest anxieties about the child are realized as her house and privacy are occupied by dozens, even hundreds of people. Eventually, they turn her house into something resembling a war zone. All of this seems to delight Him which only adds to Mother’s frustration.
Surrealism as an artistic movement began in the early 1920’s and was embraced by painters like Joan Miro, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and others. These artists each had their own approach, resulting in a wide variety of surrealist works in painting, literature and to a lesser extent, film. The movement was closely related to Dadaism. But unlike Dadaists, whose random images are intended as a mockery of mainstream art, conventional thinking, and the very idea that life has meaning, the surrealist believes these images do indeed have meaning, but one not necessarily understood by the conscious mind. The goal of those early surrealists was to merge the conscious with the subconscious, creating a new “super reality”. These days the term “surrealism” has become a sort of catch-all, encompassing anything that doesn’t adhere to traditional logic or representation.
The key to appreciating the surrealist’s art is to not take it literally. Concentrating on the details is a distraction because those details are unique to the individual. Just as the universal themes of myth and religion are expressed in imagery specific to each culture, these very same themes are expressed in our dreams through personal imagery. (See Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”) Surrealism is often best judged by its themes and the feelings it evokes and of which we are reminded. If you take its images literally, the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Eraserhead is confounding. But if you think of what the images remind you of, the little snake-like creatures become sperm, the muscular man pulling the lever becomes a man ejaculating, the long dark tunnel with foliage at the end becomes a baby’s POV in utero. Thus the entire sequence magically becomes the conception and birth of the film’s title character.
Lynch’s surrealism often acts as a roundabout way of telling his stories and revealing characters rather than a way of revealing the hidden subconscious. Other surrealists, such as Spanish painter Salvador Dali, sometimes relied on clever gimmicks and visual tricks that had little to do with the subconscious or the basic concepts of the movement. “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea” and “Mae West’s Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment,” are the most famous examples of this.
The films of Luis Buñuel, the legendary filmmaker, who’s arguably cinema’s most famous surrealist, cover a broader stylistic range. Buñuel’s 1929 collaboration with Dali, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) remains, nearly 90 years later, cinema’s most famous example of the movement. Andalou’s weird visuals and wicked sense of humor, and those of its follow up, L’Age D’Or (The Golden Age), reveal a mischievous visionary with contempt for conventional bourgeois thinking and a willingness to break cherished taboos. Andalou is a film steeped in esoteric and often indecipherable symbolism, usually of a sexual nature. The ant-covered hand in the film is said to represent fetishes, the disembodied one, castration. The average viewer is unlikely to know this, though it does makes sense in the context of the film’s “story.” The idea is that your subconscious does make the connection and creates emotion in you based on this hidden understanding. Andalou’s infamous eyeball slashing sequence is echoed 16 years later in Dali’s collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, a dream sequence from the film Spellbound, in which the protagonist dreams of a woman cutting a curtain covered with pictures of human eyes. Psychoanalysts see the eye as a symbol of insight. But if you’re unfamiliar with the dream interpretations of people like Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and others, you’re forced to rely on your instincts.
Later in his career, Buñuel’s films became less reliant on incongruous imagery and the surrealism arose from absurd situations and dream logic, much as Mother! does. The most famous of his later films, 1972’s Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), an absurdist comedy about a dinner party that mysteriously keeps repeating itself, reminds me of the Aronofsky film in the way it twists a normal situation to illogical extremes.
Aronofsky’s film uses this kind of dream logic to tell its story. I’ve always referred to it as the “dream language” because it’s the language of the subconscious. The subconscious communicates to us in our dreams with images and situations the we can relate to emotionally and symbolically. Surrealism works in a similar way. The strange situations in Mother!, like those in our dreams, deal with themes that most of us can recognize. I recognized many of the themes in Mother! because I’ve dreamt them myself. Much of the film deals with the title character’s anxiety over the frequent uninvited guests who suddenly appear in her house. I have often had dreams about my home being invaded by unwelcome visitors. This, for me, isn’t just about my fears of an invasion of privacy but the fear of a loss of personal identity. This may reflect mother’s fear of losing her own identity to Him’s writerly obsessions.
In the early 1980’s, I wrote this silly bit of blank verse based on a nightmare of mine about a former friend and classmate from high school, a girl I remembered fondly because of her bright personality and friendly demeanor:
Tina in a Dream ©
The water was blue. Blue! Tina was wearing
A bright red swimming suit. She spoke so soft
Some words I didn’t hear and dove so quick
Into the vivid blue. I watched in fear.
And there were many steps, so many lines,
Down into the blue. I right away dived
In after, into the blue. I could not see.
I came to the surface. My vision cleared. I saw
There were two handsome men in uniforms.
I heard them laughing and I asked, “Is she
Okay?” And they said, “Yes,” and laughed again,
“Yes, yes, she will be fine.” And they were gone.
And looking down upon the stretcher, I
Was so confused. All I could see were clumps
Of clay, a blue eye staring up at me.
This horror, of seeing a dear friend mysteriously and horrifyingly reduced to something abstract and lifeless, and the indignity of having others not take your distress seriously, parallels a scene late in the film where Mother loses control of her baby to an adoring crowd only to have it accidently killed and reduced to a pile of rotten worms. The individual details between the two situations are different, but the themes are the same.
Much of Mother! deals with the common fears of a wives and mothers and of losing a spouse’s attention, but there is more going on here. One of the recurring story elements involves Mother’s reaction to the stress. Each time her anxiety peaks, she seems on the verge of fainting. The wooden details of the house start to blacken, the reverse of the film’s prologue. Is it depression? Is the film a hallucination of a woman dying in a fire? At one point in the movie, I was sure one of them must be true. But the film’s final scene, a nearly identical repeat of the film’s opener, frames the story in a new perspective. The only difference between the two scenes is that the woman sitting up in bed and exclaiming “baby?” at the end of the film is not our Mother, but a new one portrayed by a different actress.
This suggests the film, and Mother herself, are the fantasy, or perhaps the literary creation, of Bardem’s writer character, one that must endlessly be replayed, revised and imagined in the author’s head. A scene in the middle of the film implies that the crystal serves as some kind writer’s good luck charm. Or the scene may simply reflect the title character’s fear of being ignored or replaced by another. Most of the film is told from Mother’s point of view which leads me to believe the film takes place entirely in her head. Is the movie Mother’s dream? Is it Him’s? Which of the two, if either, reflects the film’s true narrative voice is impossible to know with surety. A recent internet link I observed claimed that Aronofsky had “at last” revealed the meaning behind his film. I didn’t touch the link and I hope it’s merely click bait. I’d be disappointed if he betrayed his own art that way. Artists owe no one an explanation for their work. Their job is to create and let the work speak for itself. Besides, that would spoil the fun. Much of the beauty and joy of surrealism lies in its mystery, in the profound feelings it provokes even as we struggle to comprehend it. Mother! Is my favorite film of 2017 precisely because it doesn’t provide easy answers to its “meaning” and because the feelings it arouses are real and powerful. Mother! gives audiences everything we need. All we need do is open our minds and learn to feel it.