copyright 2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018

Mother! and the cli-fi conundrum

By Joseph K. Heumann and Robin L. Murray

We went to see Darren Aronofsky’s most recent film Mother! armed with the director’s own claims about the film being about Mother Nature’s “love and her gifts and the way people ultimately cause her pain” (Dockterman 72). According to NYT reviewer Melena Ryzek, Aronofsky even told Jennifer Lawrence “The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.” We wanted to find the commentary on climate change we were promised. What we found instead was a visually appealing homage to the 1960s avant-garde that presents women, their bodies, and a feminized earth as replaceable and interchangeable, like the parts of a mass-produced rifle.

Aronofsky is no stranger to movies meant to enlighten audiences about environmental disasters and climate change. Aronofsky donned his Cecil B. DeMille suit in Noah, presenting a hero (Russell Crowe) who teaches his family to live sustainably, protecting nature as a steward rather than a figurative rapist. But even in this more blatant cli-fi film, Noah’s also a super-masculine action hero protecting the Earth from humanity at any cost. In this reboot of the biblical story, Noah decisively revises God’s plan to rebuild all life, including humans, by eliminating wives and children from the Ark. In other words, because “everything that was beautiful, everything that was good we shattered, mankind must end.” Humanity would have died off if Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) had not intervened. The remaining extended family serves as a curious genesis for the rise of human populations around the world.

In Mother!, Aronofsky also draws from biblical stories as “myths that belong to the world” because, as Aronofsky explains, “There’s power to them” (Dockterman 72). The bulk of Mother! seems to comment on another Genesis story, turning Earth’s ecology into a home, a literal and confined ecology protected by an innocent but sexualized Mother played by a back-lit Jennifer Lawrence, who “want[s] to make a paradise.” She reproduces as she renovates each room, and with the pregnancy near the film’s climax, connects her work with the birds, wind, and grass “creations” beyond the house.

While she spackles a wall in the home she is renovating, clouds even seem to emanate from the yellow putty, and visions of breathing human organs appear behind the wall. According to IndieWire, “Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, defending the living, breathing organism she has built into a perfect home. She can’t handle or fully understand why people are being so disrespectful.” When uninvited guests arrive, they bring up even more biblical stories with disastrous results, from Adam and Eve and the pregnancy, to the Cain and Abel battle between two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), a basement fiery furnace, and a perversion of the Christian Eucharist.

But the experimental look of Aronofsky’s Mother! is also a return to modernist cinema of the 1960s and the movement’s prevalent exploitation of women. Ingmar Bergman’s explorations into the soul via The Silence (1963), Winter Light (1963), and Persona (1966) showcase this modernist look, with intense close-ups, enclosed spaces, and fractured narrative lines. Mother! most readily brings to mind Bergman’s Shame (1968), wherein a man and woman sharing an isolated home are suddenly invaded by forces out of their control and forced to become refugees in a world destroyed. Mother! also encapsulates time changes and narrative ruptures ala Bergman.

These tropes are also played out in Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), isolating people in enclosed places and, most pertinently for us, examining women trapped both physically and psychologically. Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Belle de Jour (1967) suggest being trapped in a place is a metaphor for being trapped within a lifestyle one wants to escape. Horror films from the 1960s like The Innocents (1961) amplify the threat women feel when trapped in a home that seems to be possessed. This domestic prison extends to bodies most explicitly in Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).

Mother!’s attempted environmental message seems inspired by both the avant-garde style and throwback heroines of these modernist films. Aronofsky seems to borrow both visual and narrative strategies like these to force his tale into an avant-garde milieu. The oppressive close-ups, which, of course, are far more challenging on a huge theatre screen, detail every facial expression, especially of Lawrence, bringing to mind the torturous role given to Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

But Mother’s association with earth turns the film into an ecofeminist’s nightmare. The insertion of the feminine “muse” amplifies the relationship between consuming the body and consuming the land by drawing on what Annette Kolodny calls “America’s oldest and most cherished fantasy” grounded in “an experience of the land as feminine…enclosing the individual in an environment of receptivity, repose, and painless integral satisfaction” (The Lay of the Land 4). This feminization of nature draws on multiple gender stereotypes. For Kolodny, “men sought sexual and filial gratification from the land, while women sought there the gratifications of home and family relations” (The Land Before Her 12). As ecofeminist Jytte Nhanenge argues, “there is an interconnection between the domination of women and poor people, and the domination of nature” (xxvii).

Mother! opens and closes with the fire, ash, and rock of a woman, and it is Him (Javier Bardem) who adds her crystal remains to his stand, a clear demonstration of his dominance over Mother and the earth she represents. Him lost everything in a fire when he was younger and found the crystal in the ashes. “It gave me strength to begin again,” he explains. But “Mother fixed up every room by herself.” Jennifer Lawrence’s milky-skinned Mother supports Him through the majority of the film, worshipping Him as the storywriter, even though only she, as both earth and literal Mother, creates, preserves, and renovates the domestic world around them. Despite her industry, Mother claims Him is working too hard on his writing. We see Mother in close up while she cooks, refurbishes, and collects firewood to serve his every need.

This need for dominance gradually grows more violent when uninvited guests damage Mother and her home. Him cannot write until odd visitors disturb their home’s tranquility and punish the Mother who created it. Him invites each into their home and embraces even their most destructive actions. The Man (Ed Harris) arrives first, claiming the house as a Bed and Breakfast. Him seems energized by the visit, but Mother nearly collapses in pain. “We don’t know him,” Mother explains, but Him welcomes the Man, despite the coughing that seems to interact with the throbbing lung in the wall. His entrance introduces the fire that opens the film when Mother walks barefoot into a dank basement to collect linens. As she scuttles over the uneven floor, flames erupt from an old furnace, and we see the fire from Mother’s point of view. In the morning there are more signs of disarray—cigarette butts in the ashtray and a vomiting Man with a big cut on his back. “Give him some privacy,” Him orders, and Mother’s suffering becomes palpable as she knocks an ashtray off a table and buckles over in pain.

The next visitor is The Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), The Man’s wife, whose entrance distracts Mother enough that breakfast scorches and both Mother and the Woman burn themselves, but only Mother eases the pain with ice. The camera twirls around her as Mother serves food on a tray to the guests. The Woman thanks her for her hospitality but minimizes The Mother’s work: “Isn’t it a lot harder than starting fresh?” she asks, and presses Mother about children. “Then you’ll be creating something together,” she tells Mother. “This is all just setting.”

The Woman’s sons enter Cain and Abel-style, violently, fighting to the death on a wood floor. During the funeral wake that follows one brother’s death, Mother is set up as a fiend who won’t let visitors mourn and celebrate, even though they’re destroying her home. Visitors ignore her as she tells them to get off a sink sagging under their weight. Unreinforced, it crashes, gushing water everywhere. The house is a wreck, but the Woman only gives her dirty looks as she tries to clean it. Like a 1960s heroine, Mother screams hysterically, “It’s about you and your work. You think it will help you with your work. Bring new people and new ideas. I’m the one who’s suffocating. You talked about wanting kids. But you can’t even fuck me.”

When his story of Mother’s creation is suddenly published, the eco-disaster on display becomes almost unbearable to watch. The hallucinogenic sequences show a home invaded by ever- larger hordes of followers of Him. Him and the visitors take even more from Mother and her home. “But it’s not yours,” Mother tells the masses stealing food from her table, while Him orders her to “share it. They’re just things. They can be replaced.” Eagerly Him even shares their newborn son with the mob, perhaps because he knows another woman will fix the mess and call him “Baby.” The only way Mother can cope with such intense pain is immolation. In the end, Mother gives us the environmental message we crave: “You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you. I gave you everything, and you gave it all away.”

In a May 2014 interview, deep-green activist Dan Bloom—arguably the first to use the term cli-fi for climate fiction and film—asserts, “I believe that cli fi novels and movies can serve to wake up readers and viewers to the reality of the Climapocalypse that awaits humankind if we do nothing to stop it” (Vemuri). Bloom’s claims echo those of Rahman Badalov, who in 1997 declared, “Blazing oil gushers make marvelous cinematographic material…. Only cinema can capture the thick oil bursting forth like a fiery monster.” But Badalov not only views these oil gushers as monstrous nature. He also notes the dual message of monstrous nature cinema: to both condemn environmental degradation and entertain with spectacle. Bloom’s admission that “the impact of cli fi novels and films has been minor, very minor” may point to the same dual role of cli-fi cinema. For Badalov and Bloom, cinema has the potential to bring environmental issues such as climate change to the forefront. But the cinematic mechanism also has the potential to obscure that message with spectacular beauty. In Mother!, the treatment of women, of Mother, obscures any cli-fi message with disgust.

Works cited

Badalov, Rahman. “Oil Revolution and Cinema.” Azerbaijan International 5, no 3 (Autumn 1997). Web. 2 Dec 2005. https://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/53_folder/53_articles/53_revolution.html

Docterman, Eliana. “Michelle Pfeiffer on the Meaning of Mother! and 'Unfiltered' Jennifer Lawrence.” Time.com. 7 Sept 2017. Web. 3 Oct 2017. http://time.com/4929183/michelle-pfeiffer-mother-jennifer-lawrence/

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Print.

-----. The Lay of the Land. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Print.

Nhanenge, Jyette. Ecofeminism: Towards Integrating the Concerns of Women, Poor People and Nature into Development. New York: University Press of America. 2011. Print.

Ryzek, Melena. “Making Mother! The Year’s Most Divisive Film.” New York Times. 19 Sept 2017. Web. 3 Oct 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/movies/jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky-mother-explained.html.

Thompson, Anne. “‘Mother!’: Darren Aronofsky Answers All Your Burning Questions About the Film’s Shocking Twists and Meanings.” IndieWire. 18 Sept 2017. Web. 3 Oct 2017. http://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/mother-darren-aronofsky-explains-mythology-allegory-bible-jennifer-lawrence-1201877848/

Vemuri, Vicas. “Climate Change with Cli Fi Coiner.” Guardian Liberty Voice, 27 May. Web. 3 Dec. 2014. https://guardianlv.com/2014/05/climate-change-with-cli-fi-coiner/