Mommy marks the fifth film in five years to be written and directed by the prolific 25-year old Xavier Dolan. Despite the critical feting his films have received, there’s nevertheless been a pervading sense that his early promise was never quite delivered upon; An expectation that he had bigger and better things coming just around the corner. Winning the Jury Prize last year in Cannes, Dolan’s Mommy has taken some time to arrive on these shores. But now, as the film sweeps into UK cinemas amidst a wave of anticipation, we find the weight of critical expectations validated, and Dolan confirmed as one of the industry’s most promising talents.
The film is a quasi-oedipal family drama which follows a trio of complicated characters unable to escape the confines of life in a Quebecois suburb. Dianne and Steve, a mother and son in a destructive, codependent relationship, pull stuttering teacher, Kyla, into their dangerous orbit when she moves in across the street. After being released from public care for disfiguring another boy in a fire, Steven moves back in with his mother, who vows to pull the pair out of the downward spiral they’ve been in since the death of Steven’s father a few years previously.
These characters help each other in a mutual struggle for survival and self-actualisation, striving for a vague notion of freedom through self betterment. Yet they form a chain of three weak links. All three are constricted in their own ways – by their minds, by their prospects, by the strength of their hope which can only stand so much. The inescapability of life, of emotion, and of circumstance form the film’s dramatic thrust. It rings achingly true.
Like previous efforts Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, Mommy’s sprawling, unruly pacing occasionally asks a little too much of the audience’s patience, even whilst our frustration is the desired effect. Structurally, Mommy is crude and uneven, but this only draws us closer to our hyperactive, vulgar protagonists. Like its characters, the film is rough around the edges and completely exhausting, but both are also ultimately inspiring and hugely entertaining. Dolan’s masterstroke with Mommy is finding a vehicle which turns his messier dramatic instincts into virtues.
Dolan has always been an intensely emotional filmmaker, but with Mommy he surpasses himself, whisking the audience along a passionate, wild, jubilant, heart breaking roller coaster. Returning to themes which served him so well in his debut, Dolan again demonstrates his piercing understanding of the minutia of familial interactions which allow seemingly innocuous conversations between inescapably close relatives to veer wildly between love and hatred.
Even amongst the story’s squalor and pain, Dolan remains as one of contemporary cinema’s most romantic stylists. From his signature slow motion, to the not-quite-in bloom colours, his camera captures longing and frustration like no one else. We watch these characters, but we experience their inner lives through Dolan’s feel for texture and vibrancy. His intense visual flare remains in full force, though he’s reigned in his more exuberant impulses to consistently serve the story, a world apart from the draining excess which plagued 2012’s Laurence.
The film’s greatest stylistic indulgence is it’s almost square aspect ratio. It’s stifling and intense, but bluntly effective in limiting the horizons of these characters. We too find ourselves confined – aware of the inaccessible worlds and opportunities sitting on either side of the square frame. One brilliant scene sees our rebellious young protagonist spin a shopping cart wildly, lost in a brief moment of anarchic mindlessness, spinning in and out of shot, freedom fleetingly found just beyond the border of Dolan’s lens. And then finally, in perhaps the most joyous cinematic moment you’ll see this year, Dolan liberates both us and his characters. We breath together. Our joy is their joy.
The performances are uniformly flawless. Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s Steve careens across the screen in a wild, debauched, and complex performance. He’s a performer blessed with the gravitational charisma and unpredictability of Dean or early Brando. Pilon’s broad features display all the pain and confusion behind his rage, rooting the character in an understandable, even loveable realm. You can feel his conflicting instincts banging up against each other until they spill over in a blaze of violence. It’s a visceral, star-making performance.
Anne Dorval, shines once again, imbuing her long-suffering mother with a heartbreaking combination of wit and vulnerability. Dorval is an incredibly primal, physical performer, her entire being an outlet for expression. She’s the perfect canvas for Dolan to work out his troubled relationship with mother figures on, finding her. Once striking looks played against the gauche, trashy outfits Dolan has time and again clothed her in. Yet her innate ferocity allows her character’s dignity and resilience to remain beyond doubt. Susanne Clement impresses with her somewhat enigmatic portrayal of Steve’s teacher, convincingly finding the layers of steel beneath her meek surface. The central trio’s chemistry crackles with energy, carrying the story through it’s occasional rockier moments. Pilon’s and Dorval’s relationship in particular is a delight to watch.
Mommy is a film of vast human insight, but perhaps with less on its mind than it has in its heart. But for Dolan, it lays to rest the labels such as wunkerkind, or enfant terrible, which have plagued the twenty-five year old French Canadian since his teenage debut. Mommy is the work of an artist in full command of their craft. It’s the birth of a major filmmaker.