Friday, January 25, 2019

God as a Narcissistic Artist: A Review of Aronofsky’s mother!

Portrait of Jennifer Lawrence from the film mother!

I remember that at the beginning of the year, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! with its headlining poster of Jennifer Lawrence was heralded as one of the most anticipated movies of the year. As a film buff, I was also quite thrilled to see the next film of the filmmaker who had critically acclaimed movies the likes of Pi (1998), the brilliant and innovative Requiem of a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010) under his belt despite the occasional missteps and misfires such as The Fountain (2006) and Noah (2014), which are easily forgiven and certainly not as bad as they were made out to be by some film critics.

Then when my movie-watching group at work ventured out to see this long-awaited film on the silver screen, alas I could not go as I was agonizing with a case of the stomach flu. Any other kind of flu and I would have been there, heavily sedated and drugged if need be, but the stomach one is a very tricky affair and a highly uncomfortable issue to deal with.

Eager to find out how this movie went down but already slightly wary due to some incoming negative criticism, I was given an earful of how bad this movie was (supposed to be). Yet a couple of my co-workers who had hated the movie with an unprecedented passion (and we had previously endured inexcusably abominable movies, such as Suicide Squad) carefully interjected that I just might end up enjoying the film more than them, whereas one of them, my former boss, even suggested that he could see me blogging about this movie at some point. And right he was, and so here it is.

My thoughts and reflections come with a delay because I stayed away from this film by avoiding it like the plague. I read about it and even, which is very unusual for me, read up on its gory scenes and sequences to see if I would be willing to stomach them (even without the ‘flu). The trailer (also unusual for me as I do not like previewing films with trailers) had made me think of Polanski’s cult horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but I was told that it was nothing like it and that the whole thing was rather confusing, pretentious and even disgusting. I could not mention the film to my colleagues without having them shudder in front of me as if traumas and wounds had just re-opened and were being relived before my eyes.

At some point, the suspense got to me and curiosity won the upper hand and killed the proverbial cat. I watched it, once again uncharacteristically I did so on my own, that is without my regular and trusted viewing partner, my wife. Characteristically, I wished to shield her from possible atrocities and decided to test view it. Should it pass - and there were two criteria to be considered, namely is it too disturbing and is it any good – then we would watch it together. As a comparison, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) did not make it because that is one of the rare instances where I felt a movie simply went too far and was simply not as good as it should have been, while Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) had been put on hold indefinitely; the latter is certainly good but – with pretty much anything this great film director has done – it is at the same time on the disturbing side of things.

Yet as I was finally watching Aronofsky’s mother!, I could not shake off the feeling that this was much better than I had initially thought. The first half did remind me of Rosemary’s Baby in how it was building suspense around the mysterious personality of the house and the enigmatic, odd and intrusive visiting couple (Michelle Pfeiffer keeps getting better at her craft) who were disturbing in both senses of the word.

The second half of the movie just went berserk, bonkers and off the rails, and although it was definitely over the top, in certain ways I appreciated it and was not as shocked about it. I must confess that my previous preparation for the film had buffered possible shocking effects as I had inklings of what was about to happen towards the end of the movie.

There are two interpretations I shall offer here for this film. They can be considered separately and independently, or they may be combined in a hybrid, which is what I would prefer. The first interpretation is of Biblical nature and status. As the film progresses, we realize that these people are not meant to be real or fictional for that matter but are rather symbolic representations of the Bible.

The couple that enters the secluded cabin are Adam and Eve; the diamond that the Javier Bardem Jehovah-like character so cherishes is perhaps the forbidden fruit they are not to see or touch on their own, while the couple’s sons are evidently stand-ins for Cain and Abel where, and this is no spoiler for those who know their Bible, the former kills the latter. Who JLaw is supposed to be remains a bit unclear and enigmatic, and it is certainly not facilitated by the fact that none of them are given names. Alternatively, she could be the Tree of Life, God’s wife, Mother Earth with the cabin (our planet) as her home, or although less likely, she may even be the Virgin Mary.

What becomes clear though is that she is intimately connected to the house and that she passionately loves and is in love with Javier Bardem’s godly character who is incidentally much older than her. She is completely devoted to him and has vowed to rebuild, reconstruct and redecorate his house, which had previously succumbed to a devastating fire. At various times and on different occasions, she wants to protect the house from others, which to her has become a living, breathing and heart-beating entity.  Later, she tries even more desperately and passionately to protect her son and to shield him from any impending harm, including from his own father.

Yet the latter is either too na├»ve and trusting or simply craves and even demands attention and adulation from his subjects and creatures, all of which comes at the expense of his house’s and his family’s health and well-being. For instance, without asking for nor heeding his partner’s (wife’s?) opinions and protests, he welcomes Adam into his home and offers him a place to stay. Even when his guest takes advantage of this generous hospitality (the chain-smoking (!) Adam continuously disrespects house rules by smoking everywhere and even unabashedly and without asking brings along his wife to stay with him), God still embraces him.

Unlike Genesis in the Bible, the couple is not rejected nor expelled even though they have broken God’s most precious jewel. He showed it and bragged about it to them, but they (of course it was Eve but with Adam present) accidentally (or so they claim) break it. Yet despite their error or carelessness, they show no remorse whatsoever. When God finds out, he is devastated and exasperated, and he even shouts at them in a godly furious demeanor with reverberating echoes added to his voice for effect. He then bloodies his hand by crushing the shards of his precious jewel as a form of atonement for his guilt, but he refuses to blame his hosts for the transgression.

This refusal may have been due to selfish reasons since it is their presence that has provided him with much needed and sought-after inspiration. Now we move to the second interpretation, namely that of the frustrated and uninspired artist. She – the Jennifer Lawrence character - is his muse, but she is not (strong?) enough to spark his passion and interest, so he uses other people’s presence and stories to provide him with much needed inspiration.

He also gets confirmation by and through them. In fact, it must be mentioned that he had previously published a book of poetry that was a major success, but his writing abilities had dried since then. His hosts, it turns out, knew in fact that he was the famed poet, and they had purposely sought him out because they wanted to meet him in person; supposedly, they worshiped him and his work.

Despite the many and continuous protests of his wife, his attention is never fully on her, but he is adamantly focused on and preoccupied with his writing. It is only after the continued presence and reaffirmation of his prowess via his guests that his passion for her is ignited and he finally “knows” her (to use a biblical term). As a result, she becomes pregnant. In a magical scene, which occurs almost immediately after their lovemaking (details of which are not provided onscreen), she claims to him that she is with child. How do you know, he asks in his slumber, and she responds that she simply as a woman knows it to be a fact.

This then jump-starts him and instead of celebrating the news and moment with her, he impatiently demands for a pen and some paper, then sits down as naked as He himself made himself and starts writing nonstop for hours or days on end until his manuscript is finally completed. He ceremoniously gives his work to her awaiting and expecting her judgment (praise); she reads it in one sitting, and she is blown away by the depth of emotion expressed therein. She is moved by his gesture of turning a veritable emotion of expecting fatherhood into a book of poems.

But like many (though not all) artists, he is being somewhat dishonest. In fact, she was not the first to read the poems, but he had already sent out a copy to his editor who then calls him and exuberantly accepts it for publication. There is an element of betrayal in the sense that the Jennifer Lawrence character as his supposed muse awaiting his child was not even the first person to be given the manuscript; he had already sent a copy to the (female) editor whom he seemed to deem more highly than her.

When his book turns out to be a complete success and they are about to celebrate this event in a lavish and intimate dinner that she personally prepares for him despite her pregnant state, he is quickly distracted by a number of unannounced visitors who show up at his door that same evening. Instead of sending them off and opting to protect his privacy and choosing to dine with his wife, he uses this opportunity to showcase himself. He gives speeches and toasts and indiscriminately invites all of them to his home. They, hungry and driven for any kind of token and souvenir, enter and eventually destroy his home.

They try to take anything they can get their hands on while at the same time eating the food that she had lovingly prepared for him. Starstruck, they want to touch him and him to touch and bless them; he obliges because he relishes the fame and attention that he receives from them, even though they not only destroy his home but also abuse and beat his pregnant wife in the vilest manner possible. When she gives birth, he is even willing to offer his son to the wild and hungry mob. He presents his infant to them because he wants admiration from them, and the ravenous crowd in their careless over-zealousness not only break the infant into pieces but even consume the baby’s flesh.

At this point, my two interpretations intersect. These admirers are those who blindly follow God and who at the same time are immensely selfish, insatiable and destructive. They keep asking for more and whatever God gives them is never enough. At the same time, God endures their horrific pettiness because they give him love and attention. They build altars in his name and image, and they worship him feverishly and ecstatically wherever they go. They may incite God’s wrath, but he is more than willing to turn the page and forgive them even though they have cruelly dissected his only begotten son.

The son may represent Jesus whom God has willingly offered and slated for sacrifice. The film portrays God here as a sycophant who is so set on pleasing his fans and followers that he would even turn a blind eye to the most despicable and heinous acts committed by humanity (that evidently lacks all kinds of humanity). They are needy, but he does not stop short of giving them what they want as long as they promise to follow and worship him. Their greatest sin would be to turn their love and attention away from him.

In fact, God’s obsession with following his orders and commandments and his insistence on obeying him to the utmost degree of potentially sacrificing one’s own child (as in the case of Abraham) is borderline narcissistic. A similar strain of narcissism can be delineated among those artists who Faust-like do not stop short of selling their soul for a bit of fame and recognition. In presenting and showing these ideas, the film succeeds; it willy-nilly and despite its excesses, flaws and failings, provides food for thought and fodder for discussions regarding religion, art and the possible combination of both. You may not have enjoyed the ride (though I personally did as well as my wife who for your information ended up loving the film), it is certainly worth seeing, thinking and talking about it.