Metaphors and allegories are constantly used in cultures present and past. They’re found in literature like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a story of four children’s escape into another world that mirrors the story of Jesus. They’re also used in politics, often to explain arguments or grab people’s attention. They are constantly used in dialogue as symbolism in film, television and art.
There are two types of metaphors that exist: live and dead. Dead metaphors are sayings that have been used enough that they pass by us without much thought. Some present examples would be saying something is “lit” or “on fire” and meaning to say “it’s good”. You don’t say “Dude that pizza was lit, and by lit, I mean delicious because pizzas don’t glow.” The metaphor doesn’t need to be explained or hung up on. A live metaphor is something that the audience will notice. It is something that is sometimes obvious and sometimes needing of an explanation. If the metaphor or allegory needs to be spelled out, does it diminish its quality? This comes to the question I am keen to answer, especially when it comes to allegory and metaphors in artful cinema; should films need to be explained?
We have all seen a film that just flies over our head, that urges for a second watch or more research to understand. Art is most often supposed to be understood if it stands alone, only being illuminated more so by new information. For the case of the allegory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is a story that can be told without the knowledge of its intention and still be coherent and enjoyable to the audience. Then there’s Mother!, a film by Darren Aronofsky, that had audiences leaving confused about the plot and message of the film. It was meant as a tribute to Mother Nature through her relationship with God, Jesus, and mankind, but shown as a wife and her poet husband who open their home to a line-up of strangers that treat it without much respect. The poet is God, who welcomes two strangers, a man and a woman, into his home without the full support of his wife – the one who has been responsible for the house’s upkeep. As the story progresses, the poet has written a new piece of work meant to signify the Bible that brings a surge of fans to their home. As the number of visitors goes from uncomfortable to absurd, the wife – now expectant Mother – is desperate to protect her house and her child, meaning to represent Jesus. As a longtime fan of Aronofsky, I had done my research before the film and knew exactly what the message was. With the answer to the puzzle already solved for me I enjoyed the film like a roller coaster ride. The slow buildup of frustration that goes from polite, to stern, to all around frantic as the destruction of the couple’s home continues mirroring the rage that is ever present in the environmental debate as well as numerous other issues facing the modern world. The director wanted audiences to go in blind, while the star of the film, Jennifer Lawrence, believed that knowing the message of the film ahead of time would help audiences understand and enjoy the film better. I believe that the latter is the right choice and can be seen in the reviews of the film. Critics, who tend to have a more researched point of view, loved it, while audiences – getting their information about the film mostly from advertisements that shed no light on the metaphor – hated it.
Another example would be Melancholia, a film split into two parts, part one focusing on Justine during her wedding day and the second on her sister Claire during the impending end of the world. The director and writer Lars Von Trier has said that the film is an ode to his battle with depression and anxiety. The argument against this film is that it is tiresome and dull, a view that I argue is based off a misunderstanding for the film and its nature. Depression is woven into its structure from the beginning. The first shots of the movie are of the planet Melancholia crashing into planet Earth at an alarmingly slow rate; we see the end before we see the real start of the story. This is the first and of course biggest punch of foreshadowing we get in the film. Throughout both part 1 and 2, Justine can’t take her eyes off the planet, this oncoming death that almost calls to her. The second part of the film in particular seems to be an allegory for suicide, while depression in all its morbid glory quickly accepts that death is on their doorstep. Claire, the sister and personification of Anxiety in the film, is desperate to find a way out. The metaphorical parallels are shown in the imagery in the beginning of the film that is paired between shots of the world’s end. Justine stands in miserable form as birds fall dead behind her. We see her again staring at her hands as the lightning connects to her fingertips, while her sister is shown carrying her son and attempting to escape the peril. The first time I had seen the film I went in blind and came out feeling the way harsher critics did. The film felt boring, scattered, and lacking of a solid plot. After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I tried to find more understanding through film, looking for stories that could give me some insight into similar experiences. Then I saw that Melancholia was one of the most revered on the list and I decided to give it a another shot. Watching the film knowing the intent of the director made the picture a million times clearer; the subtle things I at first disliked about the film became some of my favorite moments.
Needing awareness in order to understand a film should not be seen as a weakness or downfall to its quality but just another factor. Especially when we live in a world where all the information needed is right at our smartphone-holding fingertips. My advice, from one movie lover to another: don’t be afraid to do some research. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about the film before you see it of course but check with director interviews, see if there is a theme to look out for.
Fury, Moe. Lars Von Trier on His Depression. Youtube, 22 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=siegKLVZ_yQ.
Bradshaw, Peter. “Cannes 2011 Review: Melancholia.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 May 2011, www.theguardian.com/film/2011/may/18/cannes-2011-review-melancholia?intcmp=239.
Von Trier, Lars, director. Melencholia. Zentropa Entertainments, Memfis Film, 2011.
Aronofsky, Darren, director. Mother! Protozoa Pictures, 2017.
Adamson, Andrew, director. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, 2002.