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Take That! Yes mother! No mother!

Take That!: Jiaqi Kang is an Oxford Blue Film & TV columnist. Every week, join Jiaqi in discussion with friends, fellow cinephiles, and film foes on what they’ve been watching.

My friend Dan is a final-year English student at Jesus College. His favourite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, canonical artists I do not care about. He has a crush on Léa Seydoux (don’t we all?) and liked Eyes Wide Shut but thought it didn’t have enough orgies. Dan’s nickname on Facebook Messenger is Danny Bad Takes because I don’t think he has ever had a good film take- our priorities are totally different. One day amidst an other argument I groaned, “Don’t tell me you enjoyed mother!,” to which, astonishingly, Dan replied in the affirmative. What a monster. Over brunch this Saturday we discuss this most recent Darren Aronofsky work, mother!, released in 2019 in which increasingly rude strangers invade the idyllic rural home of a couple played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Is mother! any good? 

Jiaqi: “It was probably the worst viewing experience of my entire life. At some point, Jennifer Lawrence repeatedly cries, ‘Why are you doing this?’ That encapsulates it all.”

Dan: “I liked it. I think it’s a film that keeps proposing ways of reading it, and then undercutting them.”

Jiaqi: “I thought it came across as extremely unsubtle.”

Dan: “I think that’s a trap. It’s deliberate. The classic reading is ‘Oh, it’s a biblical eco-allegory.’ [Oh no! Humans are ruining God’s Eden!] That’s right, but you have moments that don’t lend themselves to truly understanding it. That’s what makes it a really good piece of Surrealist cinema. It doesn’t completely satisfy you.”

Jiaqi: “I just don’t respect Darren Aronofsky enough to give him that auteur status.”

Dan: “To compare, David Lynch’s method is more extreme in that you constantly feel alienated. I like that this film is on the spectrum of ‘Lynch’ to ‘Normal’. A more appropriate comparison is Jodorowsky, who is another of cinema’s classic freaks with films like The Holy Mountain. He’s a vile guy who did awful stuff to the people he worked with. He’s directing in the late 1970s, and his work is incomprehensibly surreal.”

Jiaqi: “Why do women have to sacrifice themselves for men in these kind of films?”

Dan: “It’s not a socially progressive film. Because it’s a Surrealist film, it wouldn’t work if it didn’t evoke the cultural signifiers that we’re familiar with. Masculinity, femininity- it’s evoking these notions we already have in us and they make us go, ‘Ugh,’ because that’s how they’re used. You’re right. It’s not great to women. What do you think of the violence?”

Jiaqi: “I’m not averse to violence like in Django Unchained.”

Dan: “I really hated that.”

Jiaqi: “I watched it because I was in the mood for some campy Tarantino violence. But I had recently read some of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work and I was thinking about the physicality of the history of anti-blackness. The ‘mandingo fight’. I can’t accept it. Similarly, in mother!, I didn’t appreciate the extremely gendered aspect of Jennifer Lawrence’s baby being torn out of her arms and eaten. What was the point?”

Dan: “Tarantino’s violent scenes feel like they are intended to be a fake catharsis for real trauma. Like the end of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In mother! it’s not cathartic. It loops around and you get the sense that it’s this endlessly perpetuated cycle of violence. It’s not for anything, and that in itself is terrifying.”

Consensus: We have totally different approaches to the film. I don’t respect mother! enough to analyse it as art- Dan clearly does and yet he wonders why he’s still single.