[Warning: This story contains spoilers from mother!]
Darren Aronofsky’s latest effort as a writer-director, mother!, is not his first that depicts a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. One of his most widely successful films to date, Black Swan, follows a nervy and anxious young ballet dancer trying to take the spotlight in a new production of Swan Lake. But it’s really about the imbalance between fighting for the ability to be a great artist and fighting to maintain your sanity. mother!, like Black Swan, is centered by a lead performance from a young woman whose character seems to have a shaky grasp on reality. But the new film is deliberately allegorical from the start, avoiding even a slight semblance of reality like the 2010 drama.
Aronofsky’s latest film begins by establishing that the vagaries of real life will be barely present. The opening shots depict a young woman in the middle of a fiery blaze, a tear streaming down her burning cheek; afterwards, the only thing remaining is a sparkling gem that seems to revive a three-story country house surrounded by an infinite forest. From the ashes arises mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who by renovating the house she “brings new life” to its foundation. Her husband, Him (Javier Bardem), is a brooding poet trying to write his next masterpiece. Soon, their marital bliss is broken by the arrival of a husband and wife (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) who are invited to stay for as long as they like because Him seems to enjoy their presence more than mother’s.
Black Swan is known for its moments of heightened reality, as the ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) grapples with hallucinations of the monstrous black swan from Swan Lake and sexual encounters with her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). But part of the terror of Black Swan emanates from the fact that Nina and Lily live and interact, at the start, in reality. Nina’s elevation to star status alienates Beth (Winona Ryder), the previous star of the ballet company, so much so that it is implied that Beth let herself get hit by a car. Nina visits Beth twice, first to compulsively see the damage and take a few of her things, and second to guiltily return them. On the latter visit, Beth seems so overcome with emotion that she stabs herself in the face with an emory board … except, of course, that’s likely Nina in the throes of manic hallucinations. The film tips into Nina’s fractured mental state here and elsewhere, but its roots remain firmly planted in the real world.
There is no doubt that mother! jumps off the rails in its third act, as the house is beset upon by a swarm of guests who wish to champion Him for his latest work, all while the very pregnant mother is trying to keep the home in order while preparing for the impending birth. Soon enough, the unwanted celebration has devolved into a riot, replete with zealots and protesters as well as cops and SWAT teams raiding the house. With Aronofsky rooting the camera directly in front of Lawrence’s face, the third act is not only intense and sweaty, but deliberately, uncomfortably claustrophobic. But a film that begins with one nameless woman on fire, only to leave behind a seemingly priceless gem, and another woman wordlessly taking her place to repeat a mysterious cycle is rooted in allegory instead of reality.
There are multiple allegories at play. The story could be a retelling of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, or of Biblical creation itself; or it could be about creating a new piece of art and how the response to that art can be vicious and callous; or it could even be an apologia of the alienation that must occur when someone is married to a mercurial artist. Black Swan, where creative types literally destroy their bodies in the name of art, is allegorical, too, but never fully flies into fantasy, whereas mother! lives there.
It is remarkable that a movie like mother! exists, let alone from one of the big studios. Aronofsky has, over the past 20 years, cultivated a status as a genuinely uncompromising filmmaker, and this film will only enhance that status, and deservedly so. He’s had many triumphs in his career, but Black Swan remains the pinnacle.
That film and mother! share many tonal and thematic similarities, but only Black Swan can blend a dizzying fantasy world with the horrors of reality into a truly terrifying and perfect piece of cinema. mother! is a wild and often ridiculous affair, so consistently heightened that it can’t quite live up to Black Swan’s underlying heartbreak and sadness.