We still love each other, right?
Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature, Mommy (2014) explores the tempestuous relationship between a widowed single mother and her troubled son. Despite its dystopian-tinged setting in which people with psychological and behavioural problems can be ‘sectioned’ by a family member in secure state hospitals, Mommy is defined by a shattering realism in its portrayal of human interaction and raw emotion.
Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, Dolan presents the majority of the film to the viewer in a perfect square frame. This shape conveys the claustrophobia of Die’s (Anne Dorval) flat as well as clearly boxing characters’ emotions. The viewer is invited to experience Steve’s (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) struggle to contain his emotions, his face centrally positioned within this box and often looking straight to camera. Indeed, Dolan has played around with aspect ratio before. His first film, I Killed My Mother (2009) is shot entirely at 1.85:1. However, whereas that felt like a young filmmaker finding his feet, the way Dolan manipulates screen size in Mommy feels much more resonant to the action on screen.
The aspect breaks out of its perfect square at the film’s more hopeful moments. Steve skateboarding along the streets, arms spread like a triumphant conductor, literally pushes the screen open with a grandiose gesture. This moment feels like a breath of fresh air. While the square screen works well for the atmosphere Dolan has created, in allowing the viewer these moments of reprieve, he only heightens the emotional tension in juxtaposition.
The central relationship between Steve and Die quite rightly dominates the film. The two bounce off each other brilliantly and their dysfunctional interaction is totally believable, from highs to lows. With many subtitled films I find myself switching off to the audio dialogue and reading the subtitles dispassionately, however, the visceral power in both of their delivery, particularly in moments of heightened emotion, keeps the viewer tied in to the drama in real-time.
In contrast to the bold primary colours of Die and Steve, Dolan also gives us Kyla. (Suzanne Clément) The timid and mysterious neighbour, she finds a place within the Després household as a tutor to the seemingly
unconquerable Steve. Functioning as a calming influence on other two, it is a shame Dolan leaves her character so underdeveloped in comparison. What has happened in her relationship with her husband and daughter? Why did her stutter develop? And who is the boy in the photographs in her bedroom? Dolan leaves us guessing.
One of my few criticisms of Mommy is the frankly odd soundtrack that accompanies it. The use of Dido’s ‘White Flag’ alongside an apparently straight-faced scene jars, as does the use of Lana Del Ray’s ‘Born to Die’ over the closing credits. And ‘Wonderwall‘? Surely nobody wants to hear that again… With a distinct whiff of cheese, they just don’t marry up somehow to the sensitive film Dolan has created.
A heartbreakingly real portrayal of family relationships and the difficulty of controlling our emotions, Mommy is quite simply brilliant. At just 26, Dolan is a sophisticated, innovative and powerful filmmaker and I can’t wait to see what he has coming next.
Catch Tom at the Farm, the final film in our Xavier Dolan season on Tue 28 Apr, 6.15pm.