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The Schmooze

Whatever You Do, Do Not See ‘Mother!’ Around Rosh Hashanah

Like a good cinephile––one of very few, it would seem––I was anxious to see ‘mother!’, the newest offering from lugubrious auteur Darren Aronofsky. So anxious, in fact, that I ensured there would be one night my husband would come home early from work to sit with our baby son, so I could attend a late showing alone, thereby sacrificing a few hours of precious sleep. And while I am ultimately very glad I saw it, I feel compelled to make a heartened plea to my fellow film-loving Jews:

Do not, under any circumstances, go see this movie before Rosh Hashanah.

In case you haven’t read any of the reviews, and you’re not one of the ten people who saw it in theaters, there will be spoilers ahead. So: Mother! is a pretty basic Biblical allegory, beginning with Genesis and leading all the way through the crucifixion of Christ, before bursting through the spines of religious texts and into contemporary history, complete with global warming, guerilla warfare, and what appears to be an EDM dance party. Jennifer Lawrence is a pre-Raphaelite Mother Earth; Javier Bardem, ostensibly a blocked poet, is a stand-in for God, who is referred to in the credits as “Him.” (It makes sense that Aronofsky wanted Mother! shrouded in secrecy, because the conceit will be very obvious well before Bardem proclaims, “I am I.”)

Because we’re in the thick of High Holiday season, and will soon be faced with our Him, I was keener to observe Bardem, even though the audience’s sympathies are clearly meant to lie with Lawrence. (The camera is claustrophobically close to Lawrence for 66 out of the film’s 121 minutes.) While it’s discomfiting to watch a work that anthropomorphizes the force Jews believe to be invisible, non-corporeal and neuter, Aronofsky’s move is hardly unprecedented, or artistically incomprehensible. Find me a child who has never succumbed to the temptation to view God as a bearded man in the sky, and I’ll show you a tzaddik.

So Aronofsky makes God a mere male mortal! Big deal, right? Kevin Smith made God into a grammatically challenged pop singer! But at the risk of being blasphemous, I’d much rather supplicate before Alannis Morissette than Aronofsky’s Him, because the latter is an egomaniacal, vampiric misandrist.

Let’s catalogue His crimes, shall we? First, He invites a family of strangers––including a chain-smoking Ed Harris, as a stand-in for Adam, and a nosy, blotto Michelle Pfeiffer as Eve––into the Pinterest-perfect country manse Lawrence has painstakingly restored. He’d rather listen to them praise His work than ask them to tidy up the considerable mess they make. (He is a consummately male creature in this way as in others––not a drop of the female shekhinah in this God.) When one of Adam and Eve’s sons murders the other––very impolitely getting blood all over Lawrence’s gorgeous hardwood floors!––He abandons her, so He can tend to and comfort the worst houseguests of all time. Or, what appear to be the worst houseguests of all time, until the second half of the film, during which a mob of His adoring fans show up, tear the house apart beam by beam, then literally eat Lawrence’s baby before pummeling her while she lies on the floor screaming. (A very serious trigger warning aimed at anyone who has recently had a baby should accompany this film; I think I actually screamed aloud when the crowd carried the infant away.) Then, after mother self-immolates, He rips her heart from her body, and creates a new, virginal victim.

Of all the galling things about Bardem’s God, perhaps the most appalling to me was how much He got off on adulation. You might have guessed that at some point in the movie, Bardem overcomes his writer’s block. His book is apparently so good that a line of people form at night in front of His house, just as a gorgeous, heavily pregnant Lawrence is laying out the gourmet feast she cooked on a candlelit table.

When Lawrence asks Him who the interlopers are, He grins maniacally and says, “They’ve come here to see me!” This He is a very perverse version of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God, who sought out the Jews because he craved a relationship with a people––although the only commandment Bardem decrees for his devotees, it seems, is that they be obsessed with Him. Even idolatry doesn’t faze Him, as He isn’t bothered at all when his followers tape His pictures all over the walls of the now-crumbling house. (I am not sure which moment was worse: thinking about how hate-able this iteration of God was, or realizing that in the world of the allegory, I was one of those gross, foolish sycophants.)

Aronofsky’s Him is not the God of the Torah, who intervenes in the world frequently, nor is He the God of today, who observes quietly as humans exercise our free will. No, He combines the worst attributes of both: He struts around, lapping up the accolades, subtly encouraging the havoc, and then claiming passivity when things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Contrary to how this all might sound, I really did like mother! a lot. It was ambitious, visually stimulating, and, yes, even amusing at times. Even if its self-conscious grandness was occasionally irritating, it was clearly the work of a true visionary, and that is always thrilling to encounter. But if I had to do it all over again, I would wait and go see it after the High Holidays were over.

As we stand in synagogue tomorrow evening, we piddling creatures want–– need––to know God as benevolent, loving, and, in a sense, detached. It’s hard enough to get to that openhearted, humble place one is supposed to arrive at before Yom Kippur; having Bardem’s narcissistic deity in one’s mind will only make it harder. As we pound our chests during the Vidui confession, we don’t want to imagine His voice niggling us, “Is that all you’ve got for Me?”

Kelsey Osgood is the author of ‘How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia’. Her work has appeared in New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper’s and Salon, among others.

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