The great psychotherapist Carl Jung wrote that ‘one idealises whenever there is a secret fear to be exorcised’, which makes you wonder about our culture’s idealisation of mums and motherhood. The gifts we’re advised to give on Mothers’ Day – flowers, foot-spas, pyjamas and cookbooks – suggest we like to think of a mother as a woman so giving and nurturing, so unselfishly serving of others, that she requires a once-a-year ‘pamper’ from her grateful offspring and their beholden father. But what’s behind this pastel-coloured Madonna-saint picture, and what are we afraid of?
Movies – especially horror and psychological thrillers – have always loved to explore and exorcise our deepest fears, and when it comes to mothers those fears are many. What if the woman who gave birth to us loves us so fiercely she’ll never let us go, like Bad Boy Bubby’s psychotic ‘mom’ who keeps him in a basement for 35 years and uses him for sex? Or what if mama is so religious and ‘pure’ that she’d rather see us dead than have us ‘defile’ ourselves with boys at the prom, like the unforgettable Piper Laurie in Brian de Palma’s teen horror classic Carrie? Or what if mother is so ambitious and unfulfilled that she tries to live out her dreams through us, even if it twists and warps us, like Barbara Hershey’s creepy ballerina stage mom did to Natalie Portman in Black Swan?
Of course the worst fear we could ever have about our mother is that she may not love us, and even wishes we’d never been born. This is an idea that haunts the shadows of stylish new Australian horror film The Babadook. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the film stars Essie Davis as an exhausted single mother to a disturbed and demanding six-year-old (a genuinely unsettling Noah Wiseman) who believes there’s a murderous storybook monster come to life in the basement.
With scraggly bleached-out hair and no makeup, Davis is a world away from her glossy Phryne Fisher incarnation. Lonely and sleep-deprived, she’s still grieving for a husband who died driving her to hospital to give birth. It’s no wonder she’s driven to the edge by her son’s violent home-made toys, his night-time teeth grinding and histrionics – which are so frequent that she can’t even get a moment alone with her vibrator. Woken for the billionth time, she screams at the child like a monster incarnate: ‘If you’re so hungry why don’t you eat SHIT!’ Perhaps a little extreme, but such jagged thrusts of dark humour pepper the scary stuff and will appeal to any less-than-perfect mother who has ‘lost it’ in the heat of the moment. (And who hasn’t?)
Another bad mother type – the controlling smother-mother – is embodied in the engrossing Romanian film Child’s Pose, directed by Calin Peter Netzer. Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) is a wealthy and domineering 60-year-old whose only child, the thirty-something Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) is trying to have as little to do with her as possible – ‘Don’t call me. I’ll call you,’ he insists. But Cornelia rushes into protective mama-bear mode when her son is accused of manslaughter for running down a child from a poor family. She calls in all her political and social connections in her attempt to save him from the law. A gripping and thought-provoking drama that touches on the nature of grief and class corruption in the new Romania, the heart of Child’s Pose is nevertheless its convincing study of a power struggle between mother and adult child. Perhaps the most shocking and infuriating scene shows Cornelia letting herself into Barbu’s apartment without permission and sorting through his private possessions. It’s the everyday violence of this maternal invasion that will be palpable to anyone who fears a snooping mum.
Jung argued there were three essential elements to the maternal archetype: ‘her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.’ He may have been onto something. While the sun-loving advertising industry likes to focus on the pastel pink mum doing all that ‘cherishing and nourishing’, it’s a relief that cinema can give us mothers in all their variety – darkness and ‘orgiastic emotionality’ included. After all, a mother is just a human being, and even good mothers have bad days – which makes for some very entertaining stories.
Child’s Pose is in national release. The Babadook opens 22 May.
Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor.