“mother!” and Her Guests

By Nolan GearOctober 22, 2017

“mother!” and Her Guests
IN JANUARY 1924, David Hilbert gave a lecture on infinity. To his listeners, the mathematician offered a parable of hospitality unhinged. Hilbert described a hotel with a countably infinite number of rooms, each occupied. The trouble comes when a new guest arrives: where, he asked, do we house her? The trick, infinity being infinitely capacious, is to move the guest in Room One to Room Two, the guest in Room Two to Room Three, and so on and so on, moving those in Room x to Room x+1. But don’t get too comfortable. Soon an infinite number of guests arrives all at once. Again, the solution is reassuringly, almost bathetically, uncomplicated. Each guest simply doubles their room number, moving from Room x to Room 2x — leaving an infinite number of odd-numbered rooms, a miracle of interstitial abundances.

In deepening Hilbert’s paradox, we might think of the symbolic status of the hotel in the years after World War I, when he conceived of and presented his work. A kind of chrome-and-bubble cosmopolitanism gleams in the lobbies of the fictionalized Grand Hotel. Its semi-publicness, internationalism, its connotations of locking, leaving, and lust on the lam, all mark the hotel as a supremely resonant topos of the interwar imaginary. Think of Jean Rhys’s Left Bank Stories (1927), Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (1929), and even Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), in which the hotel is the meeting place of strangers, lovers, soldiers, thieves, playboys, debtors, vamps, and queers. Remember, too, the soaring immigration rates, the flurry of border-crossing by those bereaved, displaced, or disaffected. Despite its sometimes vicious glitz and posh exclusion, the hotel whispers an urgent, plangent question: where do we put our guests? Hilbert supplements the query with vertiginous utopianism: by what ingenuities could we house the whole world’s dispossessed?

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is about a house that is also the world, where a poet (Javier Bardem) flounders in a protracted state of creative sterility while his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) does all the emotional heavy lifting that brooding male artists require from their ladies. She is lovingly remodeling the house after a mysterious fire burned it to its foundations; since the film’s opening shot is of Lawrence herself, red-eyed and wreathed in CGI flames, we know where we are going and where we have been.

The couple trudges on in edenic boredom; he stares at blank pages and goes for long walks, while she mixes pigments and paints walls with an ardency we understand to be displaced. Suddenly, a stranger arrives: Ed Harris, at once alarming and charming. (We know from A History of Violence (2005) that it is bad news when Harris shows up unannounced.) The men talk to each other and take to each other, and, through the poet’s generosity — a generosity that is really self-loathing, alchemizing under the gaze of admiration into something fleetingly like self-love — the uninvited becomes the guest. Lawrence plays this first act with fragility, restraint, and desperate self-possession. Her house violated, her husband distracted, she suffers the accelerating encroachment of the exterior on her interior, a pressure which finds its formal correlate in cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s steel-tight close-ups and unrelenting panning. We get the sense that Lawrence would escape our scrutiny if she could.

Once the guest arrives, a logic of exponential duplication sets it: one guest becomes two, Michelle Pfeiffer playing the gloriously catty Eve to Harris’s chainsmoking Adam. They find the god/poet’s forbidden fruit (a mysterious glass memento from the house that had burned down) and unceremoniously destroy it. Two guests then become a family plot; the plot swiftly dilates and delivers an inheritance, then a murder, then a wake, and then a party. One becomes two becomes too many. The unwilling hostess, yanked into a celebration that is really a siege, kicks everyone out in an almost campy revision of Aronofsky’s own Noah (2014) — the guests break the sink and flood the kitchen, then are forced to leave en masse. Candescent with mutual resentments, the couple fuck for the first time in ages, and Lawrence’s never-named character leaps to eponymity: she is pregnant, and the second act can begin.

The party/wake is merely a rehearsal for the pandemonium of the second act, when the poet’s masterpiece — his scripture, achieved as if exogenously after the flood — fills the house with fans who quickly turn fanatical. Aronofsky’s allegorical imagination is most exuberant in this final act: logos and allegiance, word and bond, metastasize into ideology and violence. That once unwelcome Adam has produced an entire genealogy of human malice. The house swells with a history too compressed to be distinct: cross-cutting iconographies, the whistling shrieks of bullets, the ambient sounds of degradation, fear, and subjection.

The aesthetic mode here is that of the combat sublime: a shuttling between the overwhelming immensity and visceral particularity of armed conflict, simultaneously mapping war as a system and surviving war as a terrain. Think of Emmanuel Lubezki’s unending tracking shots in Children of Men (2006), the way one body set in motion is made to navigate unnavigable scenes of terror. Both films take the problem of the untrained civilian in the warzone as the grounds for their most astonishing technical virtuosity. Amid the dazzling, dizzying vicissitudes of modern warmaking, Aronofsky and Cuarón foreground pregnant women's bodies as the privileged site for the crisscrossing temporalities of crisis: a double-pulse in the berserk distended present, where the future is continually foreclosed. In both cases, pregnancy is exceptional, overdetermined, Rosemaryesque, and already and forever the film’s, not the mother’s own. Indeed, mother!’s only mother cannot mother, placing her among the many women who would flee the regulating frame of patriarchy's close-up if they could.


In January 1996, Jacques Derrida gave a lecture on hospitality. To his listeners, the philosopher offered a pun, what he called the pas d’hospitalité, where pas means both “step” and “no” — describing, therefore, the guest's arrival as a transgression in two senses. The pas d’hospitalité is both a crossing of the threshold and an unstated but lively threat to the host. It is both the enactment of hospitality and the articulation of its eternal internal antagonisms:

It is as though hospitality were the impossible […] as though the categorical imperative of hospitality commanded that we transgress all the laws (in the plural) of hospitality, namely, the conditions, the norms, the rights and the duties that are imposed on hosts and hostesses, on the men or women who give a welcome as well as the men or women who receive it. And vice versa, it is as though ‘the laws (plural) of hospitality, in marking limits, powers, rights, and duties, consisted in challenging and transgressing the law of hospitality’, which would command that the arrivant be offered an unconditional welcome.

No matter how welcome you are, selon Derrida, you are never really as welcome as you ought to be. For Derrida, our “laws (plural)” remain conjugated, perversely, in both the imperative and the conditional. If a society comprised of latched doors still clings tenaciously to the idealized values of sanctuary and succor, then that society must create protocols and customs, “limits, powers, rights, and duties,” that constrain and qualify the relation of the guest to the host. In service of an ideal, expected, unconditional hospitality, we list provisos and set restrictions. Derrida’s deconstructionist brio is subtended by a dark, almost tragedian, understanding of the encounter between strangers: to enter the home of the host is to implicitly threaten her life; to greet the guest is to implicitly court disaster. Derrida’s hotel is Hilbert’s through a glass darkly: yes, there is always another room, but not because of some insatiable itch for infinity. The Derridean hotel would be an endless series of transgressions and impositions which pull taut the tensions between the imperative and the condition. Vigilant, cagy, the concierge watches to make sure you don’t pull a knife when you reach for your keys.

Combining Hilbert’s interminable guest list with Derrida’s robust cynicism, mother! literalizes the pas d’hospitalité, the step forward that is also a resounding negation. Every guest in the film’s house carries ruination like poison in her pockets. In interviews, Aronofsky has stressed that his film is “actually” about ecological devastation, but he either misses or dismisses the intimate link between climate change and refugeeism (the latter being the condition out of which Gilbert’s hospitality experiment could emerge). Instead, Aronofsky fixates on a woman’s body, her baby, and the house she attempts, with such futile resolve, to refurbish and renew. Far from fevered or obscure, the message is actually quite clear: protect the synecdoche, our mother earth — protect this beautiful, fragile house. Under this interpretive schema, the guests in mother! are the anthropocene: the great and ghastly pressure of humanity on the world’s ecohistory.

Phantasmatically transforming refugees into insurgents, Aronofsky turns need and supplication into theft. This is the symbolic work of xenophobia. But Aronofsky’s screechy eschatology, his telos of a house/world on fire, disregards the subtler and more urgent implications of climate change. An emergent and unfolding cluster of phenomena, not some pyrotechnic narrative climax, climate change affects the globe’s most vulnerable populations and thereby produces the sanctuary-seeking peoples whom Aronofsky would depict as labile fools, cannibals, and vandals.

What could it mean for this story to be one of abundant refuge rather than home invasion? How must we reinvent hospitality now that rates of homelessness, landlessness, will only continue to rise exponentially in the wake of climate devastation? In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes a mode of survival she calls “contamination as collaboration.” Tracing the matsutake mushroom across the globe because she hopes to draw both inspiration and theory from this hardy and adaptable fungus, Tsing insists that “staying alive — for every species — requires livable collaborations. Collaboration means working across difference, which leads to contamination.” This contamination is both transformation and loss: according to Tsing, we must risk our integrity and self-possession if we wish to live. This is what queer theorist Tim Dean calls the “ethics of the stranger” and what Judith Butler emphasizes in Precarious Life when she asks her readers to return to the state of vulnerability we could never really escape to begin with:

For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you. I cannot muster the “we” except by finding the way in which I am tied to “you,” by trying to translate but finding that my own language must break up and yield if I am to know you. You are what I gain through this disorientation and loss.

This mutual undoing is where hospitality begins: not despite or instead of but through disorientation and loss. What’s certain is that we need films that cook up collaborative contaminations — not xenophobic paranoia. Films that can think with the roomy, rangy zest of a mathematician chasing infinity — which is to say, with love.


Nolan Gear is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, where he researches the relays between early film and literature. He will be teaching a course on cinema and modernism this coming spring.

LARB Contributor

Nolan Gear is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, where he researches the relays between early film and literature. He will be teaching a course on cinema and modernism this coming spring.


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