Xavier Dolan “killed” his mother in J’ai tué ma mère, his directorial debut from 2009. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to an eight-minute standing ovation, and won three awards from the Director’s Fortnight program. Now he is back with his fifth feature film, Mommy, to once again take a look at the complexities of a mother and son relationship.
Bergen International Film Festival 2014
In J’ai tué ma mère, one could argue the looking glass was teenage uncertainty and adolescent anger. A portrait of a young self-proclaimed outcast, whose relationship to his working class single mother, was extremely dysfunctional. With Mommy, the young auteur director has grown and matured himself – and while there was no judgement of either party in J’ai tué ma mère, it becomes clear to us very early on that this is a celebration, an ode and a respectful love-letter to the single mothers of modern society.
It feels like Dolan has completed a circle. A movie were he has gone back to his roots to incorporate everything he learned and experimented with since the very first screening of his very first movie. He has a unique sense of knowledge and respect towards this type of character driven sentimentality; in the same way Martin Scorsese has mastered the mobsters, and Sofia Coppola has mastered the seemingly vain, but inherently complex, adolescent rich-kids, or even David Lynch’s nightmare-fuelled characters from Eraserhead to Mulholland Drive.
In a fictional near-future, a new law has been passed which makes it legal for parents to institutionalise their children for any sort of behavioural issues. This leads us to a Quebecois neighbourhood where we meet Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval), a single mother who gets her life turned upside down, when her troubled son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), is expelled from a teenage care facility.
Steve moves back home to his mother, and while both of them express certain behavioural issues, the bond between them seems to be unbreakable – although on dangerous and unsteady ground. They share an immeasurable love for one another, but Steve’s anger issues becomes a fuse bomb – ready to go of at any second – and Die’s own personality seems light it on fire. In to the mix comes, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a reclusive stuttering neighbour who inexplicably gets drawn into this strange duet of a family, and ends up being a tremendously important part of their lives.
Extraordinarily played, Mommy becomes a study of character. Suzanne Clément – a Dolan regular at this point – delivers her lines with such a ferocious precision that one could be excused to believe Clément suffers from the same affliction as her character. She breathes life in to Kyla, with an affectionate soft-spoken touch in some scenes, and a hard hitting intensity in others.
Not to be outdone, Anne Dorval, plays her part as the titular mother to perfection. As she did for the mother in J’ai tué ma mère, Dorval extrudes a unconventional power to disappear in to the people she portray. Die is so far gone from Dorval as one can possibly imagine, but when asked to, they become one and the same to form something astonishing.
Dolan’s casting decision for the son, Steve, is however the crux of the movie. Antoine Olivier Pilon worked with Dolan on the music video for Indochine’s College Boy, where Pilon was literally crucified by his fellow students in one of the strongest wake up calls I’ve seen in recent years. In Mommy, Pilon uses his innocent, adolescent and radiant blond looks to draw us in. In our mind he becomes a misunderstood, beautiful young boy with anger issues, but as these issues draw ever nearer to something deeper and darker, the movie really begins to shine. Because as he grabs his mother by the throat, it feels mystifying that we can still feel his passionate and deep rooted love towards her.
Antoine Olivier Pilon is however not the only thing Dolan took with him from the College Boy music video, but also the unusual aspect ratio. Mommy is shot with a 1:1 aspect ratio – a perfect square – and Dolan uses this to capture every scene with a delicate hand, making sure every picture on screen is beautiful in and of itself. To shoot a movie with an unusual aspect ratio doesn’t necessarily equal good filmmaking however – look at the chapter titled “Mrs H” in Lars von Triers, Nymphomaniac. Or any other scene in that film were the aspect ratio switches back and forth. While one could argue von Trier tried to create a feeling of claustrophobia, the way he shot these scenes suggest otherwise. Dolan masters it. He does create a feeling of claustrophobia, and a scene mid-way through the movie – where Oasis’ Wonderwall is playing – cements this aesthetic decision as one of the best of his career.
Mommy becomes a Dolan-extraordinaire. An amalgamation of his best work so far; the sentimentality of J’ai tué ma mère and Les amours imaginaires. The character development and cinematic language from Laurence Anyways and Tom à la ferme, and the aesthetics of his College Boy music video. It all accumulates here, in Mommy, to become the strongest cinematic experiences I’ve had in years, and without a doubt Dolans absolute, non-negotiable, masterpiece.