Artaud, a French writer and dramatist, died in 1948. During his life, which was plagued by mental illness and drug addiction, he achieved relatively little artistic success: His one surviving theatrical play, Jet de Sang (Jet of Blood) wasn’t staged until decades after his death, and a radio play he wrote and recorded called Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu was shelved before it was broadcast because it largely consisted of unintelligible references to God and bodily functions, interspersed with random bursts of sound. But his manifesto for a “theater of cruelty” has endured, influencing some of the most innovative directors of the 20th century, from Peter Brook to Lars von Trier. Mother!, with its immersive, all-encompassing chaos, its dream-like symbolism, and its determination to shock its audience out of complacency, is an experiment in Artaudian cinema—a narrative of creation and destruction that confronts viewers with the absurd violence of reality.
“Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible,” Artaud wrote in his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double. “In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.” Published the year before the start of World War II, The Theatre and Its Double was responding to a world that Artaud saw as ravaged by “disorder, famine, blood, war, and epidemics,” and to a polite kind of theater that was unable to offer a true portrait of humanity. “There are too many signs that everything that used to sustain our lives no longer does so, that we are all mad, desperate, and sick,” he wrote. “And I call for us to react.”
This sense of fury and provocation underpins mother!, which Aronofsky has described as a movie he wanted to “howl at the moon.” Lawrence’s character is Gaia, mother nature; the house she lives in with Him is the Earth. It’s a quiet, peaceful (blandly decorated) paradise until it’s plagued by humans, in the form of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, who fight, screw, spill, get sloppy drunk, make messes in the kitchen, and leave bloody tissues everywhere. Their sons arrive, prompting a vicious murder and a raging wake in which the metaphor becomes clear: Humans are ruining Mother’s world. Mother! is a climate-change parable that uses horrific imagery, discomfiting sounds, and subconscious irritants to call attention to what Aronofsky sees as a profound crisis for humanity, one that we need to be jarred into noticing.
The main difference between mother! and most of Artaud’s work is that it isn’t surreal—the story has a clear and recognizable plot about an artist who craves recognition and his much-younger wife who feeds his ego. And yet it’s strangely similar to Jet de Sang, which also opens with a happy, simple world that the play proceeds to destroy. In the first scene, a young man and a young woman profess their love for each other. Then a hurricane ravages the stage, stars collide, and a storm of severed limbs, scorpions, frogs, beetles, and architectural elements rains upon the stage (Artaud resisted offering insight into how directors might stage this scene). The Young Man and Woman are chased away by degenerate sinners: a prostitute, a knight, a wet nurse, a priest, and God himself.