Some films catch you by the heartstrings. Others fade from your mind’s eye the moment the credits begin to roll; and then there are the films that lull, fascinate, bully, harangue and haunt you. These films are the cinematic equivalents of making a particularly difficult acquaintance: films so odd and yet so undeniably intelligent and resonant that you can’t look away, even though you might want to do more than look away. You want to run as fast as humanly possible in the opposite direction. But you can’t, because they’re telling you the truth and as uncomfortable as it might be, you know it; so you stay, and you listen.
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (lowercase letter m, stylised with the exclamation point) is a film I saw some time ago, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head. As I write this, Californians are battling the worst wildfires in the state’s history. Mudslides with all the ruthlessness of lava flows are inundating Switzerland. Japan has sustained an unusually high death toll following a succession of heat-waves. And on the 8th of August 2018, it was announced that my entire home state of New South Wales in Australia is caught up in the ravages of a drought. It doesn’t mean that the iconic harbour in Sydney is drying up- nothing like that- but it does mean that in rural New South Wales, dams are turning dry and farmers (and their fields and livestock) are struggling to cope.
We’re a resilient lot in this country, but when the fields begin to turn fallow and the cattle grow skeletal, we know that it’s time to reassess our priorities and see how we can avoid the grim prognoses of climate scientists the world over. These scientists are bright and innovative men and women who have checked and rechecked the data and are doing nothing more than telling the rest of us the truth. And the truth is sobering.
Within only a handful of decades (and perhaps less than that) many parts of the world will be rendered uninhabitable due to climate change. Cities will flood. Little islands will become submerged. Farming communities will dry up and fade from current maps.
So, what does any of this have to do with Darren Aronofsky of mother! and Black Swan fame?
As it happens, it has everything to do with the diabolical Mr Aronofsky. The basic premise of mother! was not explained to me by the friend who encouraged me to see it. I went in innocently and waited for the story to unfold. In the beginning was Oscar winner Javier Bardem, with a crystal that seemed to renew the wreckage of his burned-out house. This
man is a writer- a poet or novelist- living in the middle of idyllic American nowhere in a Victorian manor. He has a beautiful young wife, played by fellow Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. She is a hands-on type of homemaker: as the Bardem character will later testify, she saw to the renovation of the gutted house singlehandedly and single-mindedly, with almost superhuman dedication. So far, so ordinary.
Then bizarre events begin to unfold. The couple’s bucolic solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger (Ed Harris) who doesn’t give his name, but claims to be a doctor who was told that the couple’s house is a bed and breakfast. He is heartily welcomed by the husband- less so by the wife- and he is invited to stay the night. Something about his appearance rattles the young wife. She appears to have been knocked off her axis- a little of her composure vanishes, but she tries to remain calm. In the middle of the night, she hears voices from the guest room: the visitor has been taken ill, and the husband is trying to help the man. It is at this point that the audience is invited to notice a subtle clue: a fresh scar along the man’s ribcage.
If the audience is sharp, alarm bells will begin to ring; particularly when the next morning brings Michelle Pfeiffer to the couple’s door. She is the man’s wife and again, she has no name. But she is wilful and bright and defiant, particularly when the writer (of whom the Ed Harris character is a great admirer) warns her not to step into his study, and not to touch anything. These characters also have a photograph of the writer in their luggage, even though they have never met him before.
The final clue- less subtle than the first two- is offered after Michelle Pfeiffer’s character transgresses and touches the precious crystal in the writer’s study. Two young men appear, contesting their dying father’s will. They are the sons of the Harris and Pfeiffer characters and the elder son- envious that his younger brother will inherit the lion’s share of their father’s estate- murders his little brother inside the couple’s house. This killing leaves behind a strange, almost living bloodstain on the wooden floor- the stain fluctuates and behaves like an organism and it refuses to be erased. Perhaps it can’t be erased.
During all this chaos, the Jennifer Lawrence character- lovingly addressed by the writer as my goddess- reacts helplessly and poignantly. The dead young man’s memorial service is held in her house against her wishes, and the strangers who pour into her domain treat her like a nonentity; almost as an inconvenience. They defile her home and defy her rules. At some point during these events, of course, it hits: these people aren’t random strangers at all. We, the audience and all of us (the collective us) might as well be the pack of unruly ingrates laying waste to this young woman’s beautiful home.
The character played by Ed Harris is Adam; his defiant wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, is Eve. Their warring sons are Cain and Abel and the living bloodstain on the wooden floor of the couple’s home is the mark of Cain. The other strangers systematically invading and destroying the young woman’s home… Well, they’re humanity. It turns out that as a group, we’re not all
that spectacular; particularly when the house we’re totalling belongs to some facet of a creator God and his wife, Mother(!) Nature.
When seen in this context, the film (nominally a psychological thriller) leaps up to a new and unexpected level of resonance, relevance and brutality. The writer (because in this version of the eternal Judeo-Christian story, God is a writer- in the beginning was the word) releases his new work into the world, and he receives fanatical adulation in return. People storm the house, causing property damage on an industrial scale and distressing the writer’s heavily pregnant young wife.
While she tries to build up a nursery for her child, the teeming crowds essentially rip apart the home she restored so lovingly at the beginning of the film. When the child is born, it is seized as the writer’s ultimate creation (because the mobs are souvenir hunters ripping up the house and its fixtures to show that they have a piece of something the writer touched). The child is torn to pieces and consumed by the crowd. This is the part of the film I couldn’t watch: it was beyond uncomfortable.
Being aware of the Biblical overtones of the story, I saw two things happening on screen. On one level, a maniacal mob was murdering an innocent child; and on a deeper level, everyone on Earth was a member of that mob, mindlessly killing what should matter most to us. Aronofsky’s feat is nothing short of impressive. Smuggled into a ubiquitous trope- the thriller- is the story, and it doesn’t shy away from the consequences of what it means to support seven billion (plus) human beings on a small, miraculous blue dot of a planet floating in the otherwise cold and hostile vastness of the cosmos (there’s that cosmos again). The fact that Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is Mother Earth, a young woman who is at once lovely and fiercely protective of her domain, is ultimately the most touching and tragic element of the film.
Lawrence’s performance captures everything from hope to joy to raw, wailing despair, and if you pin the face and voice of her character to this planet, you realise that you have run out of excuses. I’ll recycle next week is suddenly a cowardly thing to think. Single use plastics seem (and they are) absurd, unnecessary and cruel. If you need proof, look for a video on YouTube of a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostril- the distressed cries of this gorgeous creature should be enough to convince you that something needs to change and soon if we want to keep our mutual home (the only one we have, for goodness’ sake) from being irreversibly destroyed.
Towards the end of the film, when Jennifer Lawrence’s character is driven to the point of death by the destruction of her world and the loss of her newborn son- when her husband knows that she has nothing left to give- he tells her that she does have something; the key to everything. Take it, she tells him selflessly, aware that in taking this mysterious thing from her, he will kill her. He rips out her heart, crushes it, and within it, he finds another crystal.
This crystal- her last gift- renews the burning hellscape, turns it back into a bucolic paradise, and puts a new, young Mother Nature in the master bedroom. The cycle of creation and destruction is set to begin all over again. As a member of the audience, I felt cautious and weary at the prospect. I couldn’t wait for this film to end- not because it was terrible or unwatchable, but because in the end it was brilliantly conceived and executed.
What Aronofsky has achieved through film is comparable to The Garden of Earthly Delights by the 16th century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch. In using the near-universally understood story of Creation from the Bible, Aronofsky harvested the ideal metaphor with which to guilt-trip us all the way to a little enlightenment. Anthropomorphising climate change was nothing short of genius. Scientists show us charts and bark numbers at us and for some reason, so many of us fail to listen and to make the necessary changes that will keep our home (the Earth, this little blue planet) from burning up beyond redemption. By humanising the world we are destroying- and we destroy her by treating her like a nonentity, by defiling what she gives us and never listening when she tells us that she is reaching the end of her rope- we are shamed into thinking. At least, I hope we are.
In his bizarre and uncomfortably hellish triptych, Hieronymus Bosch shows the Garden of Eden in one panel, the Earth (during the painter’s own lifetime) in the second, and a vision of pure, beyond-nightmarish Hell in the third. Aronofsky takes the same approach: we go from paradise to the advent of humans and our impact on this world until we are all mired in the hell that we have helped to create. Bosch implied that human beings would sin all the way to Hell. Aronofsky tells a more profound truth: we are creating Hell on Earth here and now. We can help it, stop it and reverse it, but for some reason, we won’t.
The thing about mothers is that in an ideal world, they guard, teach and inevitably guilt us all the way into adulthood and beyond. The titular Mother Nature in Aronofsky’s film is no different: she is polite, nurturing, thoughtful and protective, but without us, she is helpless. She can’t reverse our mistakes on her own. She needs us to see that we’re trashing the house as if we’re teenagers on a permanent vacation from responsibility and reality; and, more than this, she needs us to stop and put her house back in order.
We’re not children any longer. The worldwide sprees of political factionalism, mass consumerism, the reliance on dangerous fossil fuels, racism, sexism and all-round cruelty that seem to define as a species are irritating and juvenile habits we should have outgrown long ago. Aronofsky’s clever nod to our patterns of violence and conflict took the form of that living, organic bloodstain, a remnant of the very first murder when Cain slew Abel. The mass adoration shown to the writer by the mobs insistent on ripping up his house so each person could take home a relic… Well, Dear Readers, make of that what you will. Caught up in it all was the young wife- Mother Earth- and she’s the one I can’t stop thinking about, even several months after the credits rolled.
I have seen this film only once and it keeps on starting up like an old, flickering movie reel in the darkness of my mind- and always when I least expect it. The film is uncomfortable, chilling, aggressive, excessively violent and tragic, and it encompasses to near perfection the impact we have had over the surface (and above it and beneath it) of our planet.
There is no magic crystal in reality, however. If we tear open Mother Nature, we engineer the end of our ways of life. She won’t renew herself- we have only her. Not to put too dramatic a spin on things (Aronofsky beat me to it) but we will lose her if we continue to convince ourselves that everything will be fine if we leave it alone.
There’s no reset button. I’m not entirely convinced that there will be a haven of a space colony on Mars or on the Moon. This planet is it. Wake up, open a window, and look Mother in the face. She’s not happy, and we’re all in trouble; but it’s not too late. She’s Mother. She loves us, she wants us to live, and she’ll give us another chance.
We just have to make sure that we’re worthy of it.