DIR/WRI: Xavier Dolan • PRO: Xavier Dolan, Nancy Grant • DOP: André Turpin • ED: Xavier Dolan • MUS: Noia • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément, Patrick Huard
We all know the well-trodden Philip Larkin line, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but what about the reverse? Mommy, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature film, holds this question at its heart. The story is simple. A working, widowed mother, Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval), re-takes custody of her fifteen-year old ADHD son, Steven (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), to save him from being committed to juvenile detention after he set fire to the cafeteria in the institution where he’d been since the death of his father three years previous. Their relationship is fractious, and a new, stuttering neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), soon finds herself in between mother and son.
The most immediately striking element of the film is its aspect ratio: 1:1 – a perfect square. It’s hard not to think of Instagram when you see this, and the film includes a selfie at one point which suggests it was in the back of Dolan’s mind too. But it’s worth thinking about why Instagram is so popular, and why it limits users to a square frame. The app replicates the visuals of older Polaroid and Super-8 cameras, cheap, widely-available products which helped generations of families document their own lives, often for the first time. The app is used for much the same thing; it is a remarkably personal, domestic environment. Mommy is, essentially, a very beautiful, expertly directed, high-budget home movie and the aspect ratio echoes this, reinforcing the kind of intimacy – for better and for worse – that you can only get inside a family home.
Dolan has talked about how the limited frame makes the camera focus on the faces of the characters, often only one at a time, and this vital to the the empathy the film generates. Almost every shot feels like a portrait, and when there is more than one character in shot, they are physically close together. It is often uncomfortable – why Kyla pins Steven to the floor, when Steven puts his hand around Die’s throat – but sometimes it’s just beautiful to witness the emotional coming together of these people. When the frame expands, just twice, to fill the full width of the screen, it allows moments of real openness, real expression and vulnerability, to take place.
One thing which separates Dolan from many filmmakers, particularly young filmmakers, is his ability to linger in moments of happiness, his love for watching people have these fleeting, joyous experiences. When Die and Kyla sit out on the porch long into the darkening evening, Dolan seems to want to drink in their laughter, knowing it will pass all too soon. When the three are dancing in the kitchen, there is no ironic detachment from the Celine Dion track that’s playing – rather, like all the music in the film – it’s the most mundane and over-saturated popular culture made to breathe again through unashamed joy. It should be cheesy, it is cheesy, but the characters are experiencing these things as part of their lives. It could be any song, but this is what’s popular, this is what you heard in the car as a kid, this is what’s stupid, annoying and overplayed but still you love it.
The nature of this love, love you can’t let go of, which makes no sense but which is vital all the same, is what holds the people in Mommy together. Die and Steven strain away from one another, unsure of themselves and of each other, and the constant tension between them is what drives the film to excavate the depths of anger, pain, betrayal, shame and love. Kyla’s mysterious and cold relationship with her own family is contrasted with the fire and intensity of what happens in the house across the street. Her own insecurity, her very unlikely presence and entirely unexplained history, only adds to the near-constant sense of unease, the feeling that it could all come crashing down in a minute.
In the end, the film is also about what to do when love is not enough. How do you go on when you cannot cope, when nothing you do is enough? What are the alternatives, and how do you live with them? Where do you find hope? There’s a complex, even unresolvable, set of issues at stake in Mommy, but because both Dolan and the actors bring the same heightened intensity to the full spectrum of emotions, tensions, secrets and failures of family life, there is no need for answers. There is no need for blame. Instead, we just sit with them a while, and watch, and learn, and feel.
Mommy is released 20th March 2015