“We spend all our time here. I want to make a paradise,” mother says.
And she does. She stands in a rustic wood-panelled room, furniture covered with tarp. She presses a brush against the walls and paints. She presses her palm against the walls and visualizes a beating heart behind them. She steps back and stares in wonderment at her creation.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, “mother!” follows a young woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is the titular “mother” (intentionally noncapitalized). She lives with her husband, a struggling writer “He”, in a house formerly destroyed by a fire. Lawrence’s character tenderly restores the home while dreaming of a baby.
As a young adult living in my own space, I understand this homemaking instinct to some degree. Don’t we all? We buy IKEA futons for our dorms and drape tapestries over our beds. We hang fairy lights in our rooms and tape family photographs to our walls.
Now, imagine this: one night, you hear low murmurs outside your suite. You open the door and you’re confronted by strangers. Hordes of them. Instantly, they’re barging in. Mustached men in muddy shoes on your bed. Girls fingering your favorite books and ripping their pages off. Strangers tearing posters off your walls, shoving your dresses, your underwear, your private letters into their pockets. You’re in a corner, struck into silence.
Aronofsky does not shy away from this psychic terror. No, he invites all of them in: strangers. A man shows up at the couple’s doorstep. Next, his wife shows up. Then their two sons, who in a heat of anger over their father’s will, fist-fight in mother’s kitchen. One beats the other to death.
The son’s funeral escalates. Strangers stream into the house, bringing food, exploring the rooms, touching things. A stranger paints mother’s walls. Funeral attendees clad in black make out in her sink. People yank colorful paintings off the wall. Suddenly, the couple’s tranquil abode transforms into a post-grief dance club.
Everyone is having fun except for mother. “Get out!” She yells at them. “Get out of my house!”
Peace is restored. Yet, even as mother becomes pregnant, her post-home-intrusion tranquility is fraught. Then after He publishes a wildly successful book, based morosely on the funeral, mother looks out her second-floor window, only to see more guests. This time, a field of paparazzi loom with cameras flashing like pitchforks on fire.
At this point, Flo Rida’s song “My House” plays unironically in my head: “Open up the champagne, pop! It’s my house, come on, turn it up.”
The horror only intensifies. Mother keeps crying. Her baby, born amidst this maelstrom, is passed through the chanting crowd. Everyone wants to touch the baby. Don’t they just love it? No — they revere it. All around, ecstatic cries drown out mother’s wailing. And then: the baby’s neck snaps, like a branch, sharp and quick.
Aronofsky does not shy away from violent imagery: a baby dies at the hands of a crowd, Lawrence sets herself on fire, bodies are brutalized. Yet, his film is more than a nauseating trip to home-invasion Hell. It forces us to ask questions about the queasiness we feel.
Questions like: Do we own the houses we inhabit? From the house of our mother’s womb, to the houses of our bodies, to the earth on which we stand, who is the proprietor of these houses? Are we complicit in these small violences? Do we regard ourselves as gods in this land-not-ours?
Among reviewers, “mother!” elicited vastly polarized reactions. While some lauded it as an ingenious biblical allegory, others were inflamed by its unabashed display of violence. Many saw the film as a tale of a male artist’s relentless thirst for fame, at the price of his female muse.
To me, the film most viscerally interrogated questions of possession and ownership. As we viewed the narrative from mother’s vantage point, we witnessed everything she possessed being taken away from her: her home, her baby, her body. She was left a charred skeleton, bereft of all. She, bearer of life, creator of domesticity, was utterly robbed. This assault on her being was emblemized as the wall’s heart decomposed into a coal-black lump.
Mother’s house was not a vessel for her to live in, but an extension of mother herself. The house was a home, throbbing with love, until it — she — was violated relentlessly and completely.
If only her guests had paused before taking. If only they had asked: Mother, is this mine to take? But they wanted more. We wanted more. And don’t we still? More from this fertile soil. More from this life we were thrust into. More from this land we don’t just inhabit but claim as ours.
Somewhere, metal instruments drill holes into earth. Forest fires blaze. Teenagers grind and make babies in September heat. A poppy is plucked from its field. The carcass of a cow lies rotting. A baby steps on a dead bird. A mother cries. And Flo Rida sings: “Hear a Knock on the Door and the Night Begins / Cause We Done This Before So You Come on In.”
Contact Kit Lea Cheang at firstname.lastname@example.org .