Written/Directed by: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clement
Dominating the 3rd Canadian Screen awards and taking home the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival, Mommy has gained much critical success and continues to receive accolades both in Canada and abroad. The film’s triumphant mark in the film circuit this past year comes from writer/director Xavier Dolan in his fifth directorial outing. Dolan, only 25 years old, has already received much success for his prior films dealing with forbidden love and mother-son relationships such as I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyways. Mommy continues this consistent theme of the bond and struggle between a mother and son in a heartfelt, but melancholic fashion with dynamic and explosive interactions between characters in a strong visual style.
Mommy plays like a very familiar story; an out-of-luck parent takes custody of a child and through circumstances and hardships, they try to work things out in the end. The film introduces this narrative and it never lets go, but like many other stories of its kind, Mommy provides a different feeling of hope for the future.
The film maintains a constant level of unease with moments balancing sweet, unconditional love and explosive violent outbursts of insecurity. With ferocious performances by Dorval and Pilon, the mother-son relationship between Diane and Steve don’t seem hopeful and any chance of recuperating from the past requires a drastic change. This change is revealed with Kyla, the quiet neighbor across the street, who at first seems reluctant to communicate beyond her comfort level, but ultimately befriends the two and shares an openhearted bond with them.
The film is uncompromising with some moments that are so intimate and prolonged, you can feel unflinching rushes of anger and frustration. Steve’s anti-social, profanity-laced attitude really challenges the limits of our empathy and in hopes that his situation can get better, much like Diane wrestling to make it so. Although the majority of their relationship is outlined with shouting, hitting and constant bickering, there is, however, an underlying sense of affection between the two. Much like Kyla looking in and seeing something likable, so do we as audience. The aggressive nature of their situation deviates from anything functional, but there’s a charm behind the trash-talking and less-than respectable behavior.
Sharp dialogue and incredible physical performances drive Mommy. Every character is believable and the three main actors create such depth through their desperation, kindness and emotional distraught that you ultimately become so invested in their relationship. Dolan never tells us why Diane, Steve and Kyla are who they are, but instead gives us three-dimensional characters and lets the audience decide whether they can ultimately maintain their family structure and friendship or fail to functionally live. The film shows the frustrations of having the odds against you, and you can see this with Steve as he desperately tries to please his mother and express himself, even though he succumbs to violence.
Dolan’s visuals complement such intimate relationships with many close-ups and swirling camera movements against sharp edits. This visual aesthetic balances between hyper-realistic and dreamlike in sequences that show aggressive interactions or hopeful romanticizing. The most unique visual component of the film is the highly unconventional aspect ratio of 1:1, making the image on screen only a square. This appears jarring at first because most films are presented in a widescreen ratio, so it immediately closes the vision to something specific. This claustrophobic feel creates a sense constraint for the majority of the film. There are, however, several scenes in which the aspect ratio literally transforms to widescreen and in these moments, the tone of the film takes a much different turn. This change shows Diane, Steve and Kyla as happy and “free,” but they eventually become constrained again as the screen shifts back to the square box.
Mommy is bleak, but never descends into something exploitative. Tender, sometimes comedic moments balance well with the otherwise dramatic and intense. Dolan has crafted such a fully satisfying and heartbreaking portrayal of a mother and son’s unconditional love despite emotional and social barriers. There are few films that create such resonating portrayals of love and hope, even when it ultimately seems out of reach.
Alex Gougeon is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music.