Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! may not be commercially successful, but it’s certainly taken over movie discussions since its premiere two weeks ago at TIFF. There’s plenty to talk about — Aronofsky himself seems maybe a little too eager to explain it — but even those who have no intention of seeing the film can’t seem to escape one question: Why is its title styled that way?
We at Vox, like the Ringer’s copyeditors, elected to not use the all-lowercase letters format used in the film’s promotional material, purely for readability’s sake. But we (and most other outlets) have stuck with the exclamation point — and there’s good reason for that: While it’s still awkward, the punctuation also communicates something fundamental about the film.
Aronofsky has said that the punctuation “reflects the spirit of the film. The film kind of has an exclamation point; at the end of it, there’s a big exclamation point. So I think the title was just a bit better that way.”
I mean, sure. But in another interview, he explained that the title came before the movie itself took shape: “The very first thing I wrote — before I started on the script — were the six letters of ‘mother’ and then I paused for a second. I remember this so clearly: I pressed shift-1 and put the exclamation point. That title was there before I wrote a word.”
It’s clear from Aronofsky’s statements that Mother!’s eye-catching punctuation was absolutely purposeful; what’s less clear on its surface is what purpose it’s supposed to serve. True, the exclamation point does reflect the spirit of the film (and certainly the end does seem like an exclamation). But it also gives an extra interpretive layer to audiences.
Mother! is part of a long tradition of movies with exclamatory titles
Mother! is the only major studio movie this year with an exclamation point in its title, but it’s hardly the first film to employ an exclamatory title.
In fact, there’s a long history in cinema of studding movie titles with exclamation points. Think of the 1923 classic silent comedy Safety Last!, the 1947 Elia Kazan noir Boomerang!, the 1954 man-eating monster movie Them!, the 1965 comedy That Darn Cat!, the 1978 horror spoof Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, and the 1980 disaster-movie spoof Airplane!. Movie musicals are especially fond of the exclamation point — there’s Oklahoma!, Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!, That Thing You Do!, Moulin Rouge!, and more. Just last year, the exclamation point rose to new movie-title heights with Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!
There are some exceptions to every rule, but if you look at what sort of films get exclamatory titles, you can start to detect a theme: Many, if not most, of them are comedies, and often they spoof, parody, or otherwise imitate some other genre — horror, disaster, capers, and so on. (Musicals are the biggest exception; there, the exclamation point denotes the general enthusiasm endemic to the genre, though it’s worth noting that Moulin Rouge! is a self-aware musical that isn’t quite a parody, but does comment on its own form.) Exclamation points, for whatever reason, denote to English speakers a bit of humor, irony, and self-awareness. Don’t take this too seriously, they say.
Which brings us back to Mother!.
Structurally, Mother! works more like a comedy than anything else
It’s maybe not the most obvious lens for Mother!, but some critics — like the New York Times’s A.O. Scott and Indiewire’s Zack Sharf — found the movie wickedly funny. Its sense of humor is twisted; it’s hard not to laugh while also crying out in consternation when a group of people won’t quit bouncing on an unbraced kitchen sink. It’s not comfortable humor, but it’s definitely present. It is, on a fundamental level, absurd.
But the structure of the film — and the exclamation point in its title — seem to indicate that even if you’re not among those who find Mother! laugh-out-loud funny, it’s still worth considering through the lens of comedy.
The classical definition of a comedy doesn’t mean “something with jokes,” or even “something that makes you laugh.” It’s broader than that: a literary form that’s in contrast to a tragedy. A tragedy begins with everything being good, and ends with it all having gone to hell. A comedy, on the other hand, begins in one place and then moves in a kind of looping fashion, and usually ends where it began, though often with things a bit better than they were originally. In a Shakespearean tragedy, everybody dies. In a Shakespearean comedy, the fools get their due and the good people come to a more settled place in the end.
As I wrote in my review of Mother!, a good way to understand the film’s beginning and ending — how they match one another — is to remember Aronofsky’s interest since at least Noah in one traditional account for the world’s creation: That God kept making and remaking the world over and over again in an attempt to get it right. That’s not particularly orthodox belief in any major religion, but it’s something that’s been bandied about before by religious scholars as one way to read the book of Genesis, in particular.
Mother! gives a kind of looping account of the world, too: The end of the film is literally hitting the reset button on the world and trying again.
Some people have read Javier Bardem’s poet character “Him” as God, and Jennifer Lawrence’s “Mother” character as a being separate from God; my own hunch is that the two are best considered (in the universe Aronofsky has created, anyhow) as two sides of God, a kind of insecure male “creator” side and a productive, constructive, life-giving female side. It’s a movie, so it’s not a perfect allegory, and at times the woman takes on characteristics of a kind of Gaia (or you might say Mother Earth), while at others she’s filling in roughly for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who in Christian theology is the only begotten son of God.
Certainly Mother’s arc is tragic: The life-giving, earth-grounded force gives birth, only to have the creating side, desperate for human approval and worship, give the baby away to them to be consumed (an allusion to the Christian practice of the Eucharist). She is furious and destroyed with grief. Then she’s literally destroyed first by humans (which is why Aronofsky keeps calling this an environmental movie) and then by the more overbearing masculine side. All tragic, to be sure.
But the structure of Mother! is that of a comedy — or even, you might say, like a parody of our reality. It takes the serious stories we tell ourselves about the arc of human history and lends them an air of absurdity. Is God creating and recreating the world over and over in an attempt to get it right? Is all this toil and trouble for nothing? If we’re being truthful, none of us can say with absolute certainty that it’s impossible. Nor should we live as if it’s true. But if it was, well — what a giant cosmic joke that would be.