When I saw mother! in the cinema, I could feel the discomfort of people around me. Shortly before the film ended, I heard a woman declare at the full volume, “Well, that was crap.” It was a big chain cinema in a screen with rows going back to Q or something ridiculous, and it was almost empty.
mother! was given about as wide a release as is possible, and it was buzzy and controversial and starred Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, and besides, it’s a horror film, which are virtually guaranteed to make a profit. But most people will not like mother!, and lots and lots of people hated it. It’s a brave, strange thing, that made me think I can’t believe what I’m seeing in a way that I thought was kind of impossible in the internet age. Every swing it takes is big. And it couldn’t give less of a shit if you don’t like it.
Even though its release launched a thousand thinkpieces speculating on what it’s about, mother! is pretty simple. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and her poet husband (Javier Bardem) live in a big country house that she is lovingly restoring. From there, the plot is basically Biblical allegory – the poet is God; mother is nature; the house is Earth. A couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up with seemingly no plans to leave, and disobey the one rule the poet gives them, like Adam and Eve. Their sons arrive, and one kills another, like Cain and Abel. Things rapidly escalate as more and more people show up and start fucking up the house – a sink breaks (it’s the Flood), mother becomes pregnant and gives birth to the poet’s son (it’s the Incarnation), the people kill and eat the baby (the Crucifixion and the Eucharist). The whole time, mother is increasingly angry and appalled at the people’s invasion of her home, as they go from rude and presumptuous to gruesome and violent. Like The Passion of Joan of Arc, a huge amount of the film is close-ups of the lead actress’s face, the camera lingering on the subtleties of her expression. She begs the poet to kick everyone out of the house, but he is vain and loves their adoration.
What’s extraordinary about it is the scale of the thing, how what starts as a story of a mysterious visitor manages to depict an entire history of human violence and our abuse of the environment in two hours without ever leaving the house. It plays around with time, compressing and jumping to evoke the pace and feel of a nightmare. It goes from something small and quiet to almost impossibly loud and chaotic. It gives you the thrill of watching something going completely off the rails while maintaining a tightly controlled narrative, as well as having several really extraordinary visual sequences. The story is entirely allegory, which I know makes some viewers disengage, but it’s hard to pull yourself away from mother! – it plays right on your nerves.
When it comes to stories as obviously indebted to an existing story or myth as mother!, the differences from the source are more illuminating than the similarities. The biggest difference between mother! and the Biblical stories it draws from is the character of mother herself: the Abrahamic religions don’t have a nature goddess, or a personification of nature at all. The qualities that polytheistic religions might attribute to a nature goddess – namely, creation – are attributed solely to God. But mother isn’t a nature goddess, really, and neither is she the earth itself. The poet is the Creator; by the film’s end, we know he created mother. The house is the earth. Mother restores and maintains the house, lovingly, carefully: she and the house are linked, but they are not one and the same. In efforts to decode the Biblical allegory, some critics reflexively suggest mother as a Mary figure – she, after all, gives birth to God’s son – but that doesn’t work when she lives in the house long before Adam shows up. Mary is a pious working-class girl who God chose for a special destiny, but this is mother’s house, as much as or more than it’s the poet’s. Having the son of mother and the poet correspond to Jesus seems to be more about the uniting of God and nature, of spirit and flesh, than to make mother analogous to Mary.
Throughout the film – or, at least, once pesky man shows up – mother and the poet are at odds. The night that mother becomes pregnant, they briefly become, to borrow a Biblical phrase, one flesh. But the poet allows the people to drive the wedge back between them, because no matter how much mother gives him, it will never be enough. He loves the people vainly, selfishly, because they like his poems. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand them. The poet is all mercy and love. Mother is the one who punishes and scolds. They’re both classic sides of the Abrahamic God, but in mother!, neither seems holy.
Much like Noah, director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, mother! uses the bones of Biblical stories to make a point about environmentalism. In the Bible’s running theme of mankind’s sin bringing about our own destruction – the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Plagues of Egypt – Noah and mother! see the long shadow cast by climate change. The people invade mother’s house, and they don’t just act as if the house is theirs but that it is theirs to destroy – mother warns them they are going to break the sink if they sit on its ledge, but they don’t care, and the house gets flooded. We have ignored decades of warnings from scientists about climate change and refused to make any meaningful change to prevent it, to preserve the only Earth we have. In the Abrahamic traditions, humans are the Earth’s stewards, but in practice, humanity has behaved as if the Earth is ours to own. Ours to destroy. Like in the Bible stories, we have hastened our destruction, and we refuse to repent. Even as our only Earth becomes unliveable.
As the film continues at breakneck pace into anarchy, as it comes closer and closer to our time – visually evoking trench warfare, the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib, amongst other horrors – the house becomes less and less recognisably a house, as Aronofsky fits the whole of the earth inside its walls. This is part of the point, of course: that this place that mother restored so meticulously is being not just simply destroyed but thoroughly fucked with, twisted, depraved. Houses can serve a lot of purposes in a film, but at their most interesting they can tell you so much about the world and the characters. Old Spielberg films are the best at this: the rooms in characters’ houses in ET or Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind really feel like rooms people live in, not photographs in a catalogue. They’re filled with extraneous detail in a way rooms in a lot of films don’t bother to be.
A home is the environment most akin to an extension of the self. A place that comes baked in with feeling: warm, cosy ones, sure, but also claustrophobic, trapped. mother! uses these associations to talk about the whole of Earth. It tries to bend our minds to think and feel about Earth the way we think and feel about our homes, which we are normally disinclined to do because the planet seems so abstract. There’s this phenomenon called the overview effect, which some astronauts experience when they see the earth from space. A cognitive shift occurs, where the planet seems obviously tiny and fragile, and the astronaut becomes euphorically aware of the interconnectedness of things. I’m obviously not trying to say that mother! creates that kind of cognitive shift. But it wants the viewer to think about the planet in a new and different way, a way that seems impossibly difficult when we’re so hardwired to see everything through the lens of self. Saying Earth is our home is kind of a platitude at this point, but mother! is about what that feels like. What it means that we’re destroying it.
While mother! compresses all of human existence into one woman’s life – from Adam and Eve to the apocalypse – last year brought us another film that, in the singular location of an old country house, depicts the minuteness of one man’s life in the sweep of all human existence. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story stitches together disparate lives across the expanse of time, and it feels like a poem. It’s a film you remember in images, that seems to haunt you. It’s lovely and sad and very beautiful.
Both mother! and A Ghost Story are experiences more than narratives, and both caused consternation in my screening (there were exactly two people at my showing of A Ghost Story who thought they were seeing something profoundly beautiful, and they were the co-founders of this website. Another fifteen thought they were seeing the worst film ever made). But where mother! feels huge, A Ghost Story is small and intimate, even as it encompasses the distant past and distant future.
A Ghost Story is about a couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, named in the credits as M and C), living in an old country house. The film is in a nearly-square aspect ratio with rounded corners, like an old home movie, and shots of M and C cuddling are so intimate it feels like you’re intruding. Early on, C (Affleck) dies in a car accident, and he spends the rest of the film as a ghost, covered over in a white bedsheet with holes cut out for eyes. It’s an image that is initially kind of funny but quickly becomes almost breathtakingly sad.
He haunts his and M’s house, and watches from the edge of the frame the film’s most (in)famous scene: a five minute, static and unbroken shot of M eating a pie. She eats the whole thing, tucking right into it with a fork instead of slice by slice, and then eventually goes to the bathroom to throw up. The scene acts as kind of a litmus test for the film as a whole – either you’ll check out and later tell your friends about how you saw the most boring movie ever, or you’ll find yourself incredibly moved. For my part, I think it’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen on screen. I love it for its willingness to stay with her in this moment, through this mundane expression of her grief, and to find the tragedy and beauty there. In Every Frame a Painting’s video on Martin Scorsese’s use of silence, Tony Zhou talks about how Hollywood films are increasingly reluctant to have any silences at all, and how seeming silences often have music underneath. The silence and the stillness of the pie-eating scene is part of what makes it so uncomfortable to watch: you want to turn away, you want the camera to turn away for you. The medium’s control of time and pacing is one of the defining features of film, but I’ve never felt as ensnared by time as I did watching the pie-eating scene. Doomed to experience it at a rate of one second per second.
All of A Ghost Story is about being ensnared in time: how it moves too slowly, and then all too fast, until eventually C finds some transcendence. When M moves out, we discover he wasn’t haunting her, he was haunting the house. A Spanish-speaking family move in – their dialogue isn’t subtitled – and C reacts in rage, smashing things like a poltergeist. Time begins to move much quicker, not like the nightmare-pacing of mother! but something more real and therefore scarier. Time moves like time really does move, where it seems to slip right through your fingers faster and faster.
There’s a party, and a man gives a long speech, by far the most extensive piece of spoken dialogue in the film. A woman says something about working on her novel, and he sets off about how in the end, none of this will survive, not the most beautiful symphonies or the most eloquent poetry. C is a musician, and when he was alive, he seemed to care more about his work than he cared about M – or, to be fairer, he found it much easier to express himself through his work. He obviously loved M, but he studiously avoided uncomfortable conversations. The man at the party, played by Will Oldham, the musician better known as Bonnie Prince Billy, talks about whether Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony could survive the apocalypse, the melodies rattling around in the brain of a single survivor, and how, regardless, someday the earth will be gone, the oceans will rise or the sun will explode, and there will be nothing left as a remembrance that we were ever here.
It’s pretentious. It’s baby’s first existentialism. It’s funny and well-delivered, and the film has gone so long without dialogue that this long, verbose monologue feels like an oasis in the desert. But I’ve never cared for “isn’t everything meaningless because it won’t exist forever,” not least because it misunderstands the nature of meaning.
And then we see a girl at the party, played by Kesha. She turns up the volume of the pop song on the stereo, and she dances. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
A lot of people take the Will Oldham speech as the film’s thesis. But for my part, Kesha turning up the song is the heart of the thing. That art isn’t important because it will last, because nothing lasts. Beethoven’s Ninth isn’t wonderful because my great-grandkids will someday hear it. It’s wonderful because of how it makes you feel, how it connects you to other people. Because it’s beautiful. Kesha turns up the song, and in that moment, that song is the most important piece of art humans have made.
In many ways, it sounds like a refutation of mother!. In that film, humans are too selfish and short-sighted to care about the world and its future. A Ghost Story focuses on the beauty and importance of all the small moments that make up the present. mother! chastises us for living only for now, and A Ghost Story celebrates it. In mother!, the human characters don’t care if the world burns; in A Ghost Story, it’s all Will Oldham’s character cares about. But both films are about ways in which people choose not to give a shit. In mother!, the people who invade the house are chaotic hedonists, destroying everything they touch. Oldham in A Ghost Story is a nihilist, who sees impermanence as meaninglessness. Both films challenge us to give more of a shit: that the world is worth saving even if it will still end, that art is worth is making not because of the adoration you receive from fans or because it will last after you die but because beauty is good and makes people’s lives better. We are all ensnared in time. The question is what we do with it.