Mothers give birth, nurture and provide unconditional affection. That’s more or less the fundamental law of nature, and an essential requirement for the nuclear family and traditional society. The reality, of course, is a little different. Mothers aren’t always this caring and benevolent. Many females reject their offspring. Some kill. Sometimes the offspring turns him or herself against the creature that gave birth. The negative repercussions are everywhere: in the demeanour of the child, in the romantic relationships of both the mother and grow-up son/daughter, and all sorts of social interactions. It’s often the disregard for human life, compassion and altruism that prevails.
Cinema has found a myriad of ways of representing the breakdown of the motherly bond and its the devastating impact. Typically, it all begins with the collapse of the female per se. Our society is still profoundly misogynistic, and this is broadly reflected on the silver screen. The woman is associated with hysteria (a word historically and controversially concocted exclusively for females). They are more prone to outbursts and all sorts of dysfunctional behaviour. On the positive side, they are perceived as more caring and sensitive, but these qualities are extremely volatile. A woman’s sanity can be easily defenestrated, and she promptly becomes a wicked witch, a vile bitch or an evil-doer. The doting mother morphs into an ugly and murderous creature.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, early genre theory stated that the monster in horror films is always a female. If the monster looked male, it would be described as a “phallic female”, in good ol’ Freudian language. In a nutshell, the grotesque, heinous, disfigured and inhuman is always female. Man are simply to rational and balanced for that. Quite!
The masters of film have found ingenious ways of representing this emotional breakdown of the female and the consequent failure of motherhood. Some have remained a little more Freudian, painting the woman as sick and dysfunctional, while other have challenged the stereotype, creating very different propositions and solutions to the female enygma. Below is a list of 15 very different and diverse movies about dysfunctional females and failed motherhood. They include a few dirty gems you won’t easily come across otherwise. Avoid this list in case you are feeling broody or simply a little romantic!
The films are listed in alphabetical order. Click on the film title in order to accede to our exclusive film review (where available):
1. The Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009):
This is your most traditional and conventional – and perhaps misogynistic – take on femininity and motherhood. The Danish director is his usual sadistic and misanthropist self. The unnamed female (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) becomes increasingly erratic and violent after the tragic loss of their child. The man (William Dafoe) has to fend off all the hatred, anguish and resentment vented by his partner. In the end of the movie, we find out the very peculiar reason that drove the woman to insanity.
2. Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999):
Middle-age widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) sets up a mock “audition” in order to find a new wife, after much insistence from his son Shigehiko that he begins dating again. He becomes infatuated by the mysterious Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). They make love, and the female demands that Aoyama pledge his love to her and no one else. But there’s nothing loving and caring – let alone motherly – about Asami. The female has a very sinister side that defies all notions of what a nice housewife and lover should be. The outcome is extremely gruesome, including wire saw, needles and the some of the most profoundly sadistic torture you will ever witness in cinema.
3. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979):
A group of mutant children are responsible for a number of gruesome murders. It turns out that they are telepathically controlled by their mother Samantha, and that their deadly actions are nothing but the dark wishes of the deranged female. The final scene is truly memorable, as is the revelation of how Samantha has given birth to these horrific creatures. The graphic “birth” sequence will put you off naked females for a long time. No less significant is the fact that Cronenberg was going through an acrimonious divorce battle with his wife, and Samantha is a fitting “tribute” to his estranged partner.
The Brood is also pictured at the top of this article.
The pain of losing a child can drive a mother to very extreme actions. Sophia (Catherine Walker) is overwhelmed with sadness since the death of her young boy. She is determined to make contact with his soul at all costs. She hires a big mansion in the Irish forests and hires an occultist with experience in black magic called Solomon in order to communicate with her dead son. The outcome, however, isn’t quite what she expected, malign forces being unleashed. Perhaps Sophia should have found a less unorthodox way of coming to terms with her interrupted motherhood experience. This is an intense horror movie and also a trip into Irish occultism.
This bizarre and elegant tale of gore and horror is not for the faint-hearted and squeamish. The helmer torture viewers with plenty of mutilated bodies, sadistic pleasures and – above everything else – deeply dysfunctional and psychotic females. All blended with a little bit of TLC, maternal warmth and lesbian affection,
A mother (Diana Agostini), who was previously an eye surgeon in Portugal, lives with her husband and their young daughter Francisca (Kika Magalhães) in a secluded farm somewhere in the remote American countryside. She gives her daughter anatomy lessons from a very young age, probably unaware that Francisca would soon use her acquired skills in the most unorthodox ways imaginable.
This an unusual, bizarre and, at the same time, extremely tender Brazilian horror movie. It starts out as an awkward domestic drama, as the gorgeous, upper-class, white and pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hires the black babysitter Clara (Isabél Zuaa). The relationship of the two women slowly morph into something else. And so does the unborn baby!
The subject of interrupted motherhood and isolation from society become central to the story, which takes a very unexpected twist roughly in the middle of the 127-minute narrative. Derivative elements are deftly combined in order to create a film with a singular identity, extraordinarily original in its format. Violence here acquires a fantastic dimension. Blood isn’t repulsive; it’s instead the ultimate maternal link. Meat is not murder.
7. In The Basement (Ulrich Seidl, 2014):
In this Austrian every bleak and stern documentary, the country’s enfant terrible of the cinema world explores some of the most disturbing obsessions of his countrymen and women. He goes down real people’s basement to reveal a collections deadly guns, Nazi memorabilia, bizarrre sex toys and instruments and… a very eerie woman who coos over a lifesize latex model baby. Or is it a mummified version of her dead child? Her affection seems to be very real. Motherhood, on the other hand, is an elusive concept, while reality is indeed very freakish.
Mother Russia has failed it children. It has neglected and relegated them to a life without hope and love. The latest movie by Andrey Zvyagintsev, possibly the biggest exponent in Russia cinema right now, is a bleak allegory of his home country.
In Loveless, both mother and father disregard their son, who suddenly goes missing without leaving a trace. But it’s the mother Zhenya who has the most graphic and jarring description of parenthood. She despises her son for nearly “cleaving her in twain at birth”, and she simply cannot stand his very sight.
This is as pathologically graphic as motherhood gets. Ayka is an illegal immigrant in Russia, and she has abandoned her newborn baby in hospital because she has to means of looking after it. But then her body plays tricks on her. Blood prevails in the first half of the movie. Due to child labour, Aika is haemorrhaging large amounts of the liquid, which doesn’t prevent her from walking around the city, using public transport and even working. The second half of the film is soaked in maternal milk. Aika stops bleeding after seeing a gynaecologist, but the doctor also tells her that she’s lactating and could develop matitis if she doesn’t breastfeed. Are these signs that Ayka should return to hospital and retrieve her child? The film closure is as shocking as Ayka’s entire predicament.
10. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981):
A scrawny, pale and neurotic Anna (played by Isabelle Adjani, in a performance of a lifetime) begins a romantic and very sexual relationship with an alien, which slowly replaces her loving husband Mark. This likely is most absurd tale of love and adultery you will ever see, and an often overlooked dirty gem of cinema.
The movie includes a very graphic sex scene with the strange creature, which progressively morphs into a human being. There is also a miscarriage in a subway passage, where Adjani screams and ejects liquids from pretty much every orifice of her body. Once again, we should be grateful this baby was never born.
Akin to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Alice Lowe’s directorial and writing debut uses the horror genre as a vice to explore femininity and pregnancy’s isolation. Unlike numerous egotistical star driven directorial debuts, Prevenge is a strange concoction of the slasher horror and comedy – making for a truly original recipe of British independent filmmaking. Mum-to-be Ruth develops a taste for blood, which seems to be related to her unborn child. Her actions culminate in stunningly grotesque murders.
Alice Lowe’s straight-faced performance is all the more impressive when considering the actor/writer/director was seven months pregnant when filming the role. Her ability to create awkwardness in a scene lends itself well to her script-writing.
12. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960):
The titular “Oh mother, mother, what have you done?” has become emblematic of the most twisted and psychotic mother-son bond ever. Norman Bates’s mother is possessive, jealous and murderous. Except that mother, of course, isn’t mother at all! Hitchcock’s masterpiece is a dirty ode to all females who – unlike Mrs Bates – do not wish to become a taxiderm.
13. Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965):
Hopefully you won’t meet a female this rabid anytime in your life. Carols Ledoux (played by 22-year-old Catherine Deneuve) is extremely beautiful and attractive. She begins a dalliance with a charming and well-meaning gentleman called Colin (John Fraser). However, the titular repulsion kicks in and Carol becomes deranged before any sort of carnal interaction comes to fruition. Thankfully for her offspring, Carol never becomes a mother!
14. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968):
This is the ultimate gaslighting horror tale. Polanski’s masterpiece depicts Rosemary Woodhouse’s (Mia Farrow) descent into panic and neurosis after suspecting that there is something wrong with her pregnancy. She believes that her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) is conspiring with her neighbours, and that her baby isn’t quite what she expects. But is Rosemary going mad or is there something supernatural taking place? In other words, is every impregnated female a little insane? Well, most of us know the film ending and the answer. And it’s not pretty!
15. Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014):
In this British science fiction flick set in Scotland, a female alien who perfectly mimics humans and picks us random men, who eventually meet a horrific fate. The otherworldly female is both erotic and scary. The other actors are mostly non-professionals and much of the action was captured with hidden cameras, giving the film a creepy naturalistic feel. This alien does not conceive any children. Instead, she seems to embody the very opposite of motherhood: cold, deceitful and deadly.
These films were selected by Victor Fraga and Alex Babboni. This article is a published in a partnership with Doesn’t Exist Magazine. It is only available online (not on print).