'Mother!' and 'A Ghost Story' ― an unlikely pair

OCTOBER 7 ― Without a doubt, the must-see cinema event of last week was Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Mother!.

Because of work and personal schedules, I had a really hard time trying to catch up with all the new Malaysian cinema releases last week, which also included titles like local Tamil slasher flick The Farm, the latest Donnie Yen movie Chasing The Dragon, the new Jackie Chan movie The Foreigner and David Gordon Green’s latest film Stronger.

That’s five brand new movies opening on the same day here, and you can actually say that all five of them have at least some point of interest for all sorts of filmgoers.

Chalk that one up as a win for variety in local cinemas because aside from The Foreigner and maybe Chasing The Dragon, the films aren’t exactly of the blockbuster variety.

Even more surprising is the fact that Mother! and Stronger actually got a cinema release here, with the former now notorious for its allegory and symbol-heavy style of storytelling and the latter another small-scale indie drama typical of David Gordon Green since he made a return to indie flicks with films like Prince Avalanche, Joe and Manglehorn after a brief and surprising sojourn making Hollywood stoner comedies like Your Highness and The Sitter.

I’m guessing it’s their star power that got both movies into cinemas here, the former boasting names like Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer while the latter has Jake Gyllenhaal, because story or content-wise these are way off obvious targets for money spinning.

If you haven’t watched the two films I mentioned in this piece’s title ― Mother! and A Ghost Story ― then I’ll have to regretfully give you a spoiler warning because it’s simply impossible to write about them without giving away some important plot points, but rest assured, these two films are so much more than just their plots.

By now the hype surrounding Mother! is probably deafening enough that you might have already heard or read about how the film, with a seemingly simple plot about a woman and her poet-writer husband living in a secluded house gets an unexpected visit from a stranger, and later on his family, with things then becoming more and more surreal as the woman receives all sorts of mental and physical abuse, culminating in a breathtakingly loony 25-minute sequence in which nothing less than the dark history of the world is enacted inside the house.

Trying to read the events of the film in a literal manner is nothing short of maddening, but there’s clearly a whole different layer to it, and this is where my gripe with the film starts.

Once you’ve done further reading on the film (before or after watching it, it doesn’t really matter) and the film’s allegory is either explained or hinted at (I straight away figured out the whole thing once I read a Jennifer Lawrence interview in which she says her character is basically Mother Nature), then the whole thing actually turns out to be really simple.

In short, the woman is Mother Nature/Earth, the man is God, the visitor is Adam, his wife is Eve, and their two sons are Cain and Abel. You don’t even have to be well read to figure it all out once you’ve got one of the pieces of the puzzle in place.

But to actually need someone from the film-making team to explain or hint at the meaning of the whole thing also means that the film has actually failed to do what it set out to do, because I personally think that to read a film one only needs to consider what’s presented in the film, without any assistance from something outside of the film, like interviews or press statements, reviews and whatnot.

A great allegorical film, like The Apple from Iran, works perfectly on both layers (i.e. the plot and the allegory) without the audience needing to know any background information about the intentions of the film-maker. You can just watch it cold and totally get it.

This of course brings me nicely to the wondrous A Ghost Story, a film which I only got to see recently because the home video release just came out in the USA this week.

To my surprise it makes for a pretty interesting double bill with Mother!, because it’s also a seemingly simple story which is wide open to interpretation.

How it’s different from Mother! is that it doesn’t have just one meaning. It asks and provokes all sorts of questions without being presumptuous enough to know and provide all the answers.

Its plot is about a man and a woman, and also the house that they live in together. Tragedy strikes when the man dies, and he then becomes the ghost of the story’s title, as he comes back to the house (draped in white sheet with two holes for eyes), quietly observing the woman grappling with grief and loss, and then heartbreakingly moving on with her life, moving out and leaving him stuck in the house amongst new tenants and later on unstoppable progress.

And so the movie actually becomes a heartbreakingly beautiful meditation on grief, loss, memory and time, and it can mean very different things to different people, depending on what you project onto that ghostly figure in the white sheet. Supporting this rich fountain of meaning is director David Lowery’s (he of Pete’s Dragon fame, returning to his indie roots here) skillfully fluid way of presenting the transition of time, usually within the same shot, which is again similar to Darren Aronofsky’s directing strategy in the aforementioned 25-minute history of the world scene in Mother!.

How funny is it, though, for two very similar films to leave totally different impressions just because of the place they started from ― one begins by knowing all the answers and then proceeds to deconstruct them into pieces of an actually very simple puzzle (which I found to be annoyingly presumptuous), while the other just wants to ask questions and explore (which I thought was wonderfully humble and honest). Which one’s your cup of tea?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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