Critics and scholars often refer to young, accomplished Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan as the “enfant terrible” of French-Canadian cinema. This moniker is likely not because Dolan is breaking the rules and conventions of filmmaking though, because for the most part, he is not. Instead, it could be due to how his stories focus on actual enfant terribles, fussy and privileged kids going through issues of sexuality, identity and self-worth.
Dolan is far from the Godard of modern Québécois cinema, but more akin to Truffaut, full of freewheeling energy and insight and throttled by character rather than concept. Just 25 years old, the director is already making one good or interesting film a year and in 2014, he has just given us his most accomplished feature yet, Cannes favorite Mommy, which features the most terrible enfant in any film from recent memory.
That obnoxious and self-serving but charming teenager, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is trouble and we know it before we even see him. In an early scene, Steve’s mother, Diane (a masterful Anne Dorval), goes to a detention center after he starts a fire that leaves a boy with life-altering facial burns. When Diane – who goes by “Die” – sits with a social worker, she is not as disgusted with her son’s actions as knowingly amused. When an advisor calls Steve dangerous, Diane shrugs her shoulders, as if saying, “what else is new?” Like mother, like son.
Diane is quite the firecracker, even giving her son drinks and puffs on her cigarettes. She can barely scramble enough together to pay the bills and is moving from job to job, but now she has to provide more to keep Steve around. (That detention center ordered him to remain home and under close watch.) Diane wavers between responsibility and recklessness, and Steve picks up from the latter. He rides his longboard through town and despite his lack of upward mobility as a member of society, moves in big steps. In one scene, the camera rotates around Steve as he whips around a shopping cart, screaming and basking in the freedom. Steve is like a dog, absorbing all of our attention through his charm and sassy behavior yet prone to deep rage.
Even with his caustic charisma, Steve doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends. Still, as Norman Bates once subscribed, a boy’s best friend is his mother. His inflammatory personality is raw, but Diane is not usually fazed by his uncontrollable mischief and aggression. There is tough love between the two: even after he attacks her, she counter-acts and injures her son, then running into a closet to evade a potential lashing out. “A mother doesn’t wake up one morning not loving her son,” she reassures him.
Diane decides to home-school Steve while also making ends meet. She finds a friend (and mentor for her son) in reserved neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément, another Dolan favorite). Kyla stutters, stemming from some ambiguous psychological issues, but despite her introversion clashing against Steve’s agitation, the two slowly become friends. She stabilizes things between mother and son somewhat – but how long can that last?
Behind the camera, Dolan makes a simple yet enormously effective stylistic choice – one that could have been seen as too self-indulgent if it didn’t work so well. He squeezes most of Mommy into a 1:1 aspect ratio, with black bars on the left and right sides of the screen. For a title that deals with characters with bottled rage, the bars confine the drama until the emotions break. About a third of the way into the 140-minute film, a shouting match between mother and son explodes; aided by the pressure of both black-barred sides pushing against the characters, the scene escalates in gripping form. We are trapped in their torment.
A while later, when the tension has subsided, Steve even opens the frame with his hands, spreading the aspect ratio to a sunnier, liberating widescreen. It is one of the most liberating, intoxicating moments of any film in the past year. (That shift to a more anamorphic view is in a sequence with Oasis’ Wonderwall playing underneath. It will be hard for the lyrics of “Maybe / You’re going to be the one that saves me” to be heard without that depth and sense of renewal again.)
As per Dolan’s earlier features, Mommy is filled with radio standards – this time from Nineties adult contemporary, including the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion, Dido and Counting Crows – sometimes set to swooning slow-motion. In the film, the characters interact with the song selections, singing karaoke or twirling in the kitchen as the tunes play on the stereo. The musical moments feel spontaneous, helped by the surprisingly poppy song choices, and ground the suburban malaise into one that we recognize, when people project their sadness and happiness into zesty radio hits.
For a nearly two-and-a-half hour drama confined to half the screen and within a few settings, Mommy never hits a dry patch. If anything, a few bits even feel rushed. At the start, Dolan explains the details surrounding a fictional futuristic bill, where the Canadian government lets a parent cosign a child with behavioral problems to an institution. The information appears in white text over a black screen. This exposition has a clunky feel that stands opposed to the rest of the film’s fluidity. Meanwhile, despite Clément’s bravura low-key turn as Kyla, her character is incomplete. The film does not make the root of her boredom or ennui very clear, leaving the actor to languish in silence for too long in scenes that do not build up to much.
Mommy is both wickedly raunchy and poignant, and Dolan expertly blends the more raucous moments of anger and hostility between Diane and Steve with their affection for each other. A few periphery scenes aside, including those with neighbourly lawyer, Paul (Patrick Huard), who has his eye on Diane, the film rarely sees the main characters interact with friends or lovers. They mostly just have each other. The writer/director lets us wander with the mother and son, together and alone, as we pick up the small tics of their personalities: Diane pouring whiskey in a mug as she tends to the laundry, Steve clenching his pants in agony as he watches his mom cozy up to Paul. Diane and Steve’s fight furiously, but they also have an intense love. While Dolan does not let the Oedipal complexes overwhelm his story, there are certainly hints.
Dorval, who also played a mom in Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother – see a pattern? – gives a performance of intense passion and compassion. We see both the youth that flutters around her – she dresses and drinks more like a teenager than her own son – and the anguish she goes through as a mother, trying to understand Steve’s unruly behaviour. Meanwhile, Pilon is an arresting screen presence, as well, giving an unnerving portrayal as a teen who does not have much going for him except his mom’s admiration. Watch a special form of acting when he explodes at Diane, after he buys her a necklace with the word “mommy,” and her first response is accusing him of stealing it. Steve would be an aggravating character if the performance wasn’t such arrestingly fine-tuned lunacy, with underpinnings too poignant to avoid.
In one of his most artistic flourishes, Dolan surrounds the gripping family drama with sequences shot in hazy light (by André Turpin) and with an angelic score (Noia‘s, composer of Laurence Anyways) in the background. These scenes, with Diane embracing the outdoors and picking fruit from a tree in the yard, as well as glimpses of Steve caressing and dancing with a bride-to-be, are meant to be imaginary and romanticized. Cerebral to the point that they evoke Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life, these visions are some of the most audacious things the filmmaker has ever done. They are a counterpoint to the spare, tense drama, which give a glimpse of what may be.
With Mommy, Dolan has made another bold, bruising film about tough love, partially defined by the off-kilter but compelling relationship at its center. The prodigal son – that would be the writer/director – has bloomed as a filmmaker while keeping the material close to his chest. He is now more confident in his abilities as a stylist, a storyteller and the ways that style complements the substance of his story.