mon 25/01/2021

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Mommy

Mommy

French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan reveals stark new energy in his fifth film

Complicated closeness: Anne Dorval and Antoine Olivier Pilon

“Loving people doesn’t save them” could be the epitaph to the young Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s exuberant, emotionally draining fifth feature Mommy. Its vivid colours, concentrated in an unusual square screen ratio, seem to burst out with devilish energy as we follow the attempts of a loving but stretched mother to look after her 15-year-old son who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“Loving people doesn’t save them” could be the epitaph to the young Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s exuberant, emotionally draining fifth feature Mommy. Its vivid colours, concentrated in an unusual square screen ratio, seem to burst out with devilish energy as we follow the attempts of a loving but stretched mother to look after her 15-year-old son who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Over 139 minutes – Dolan again doubles as his own editor, and a degree of trimming would certainly have worked to crystallize the film further – we’re buffeted by the conflicting emotions of love and anger as mother and son fire up their downbeat home environment. The appearance in their midst of a neighbour who is their exact opposite in character – she’s a shy, stammering schoolteacher recovering from a breakdown – balances the turbulent emotions of the two main players, but doesn’t prove enough to direct the trio away from the film’s inexorable conclusion

Dolan has studied such bruising, codependent mother-son relationships before, notably in his debut I Killed My Mother (J'ai tué ma mère): that film went to Cannes in 2009 when the director was only 20, and Mommy followed it there last year, coming away with the festival's Jury Prize (shared with veteran Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language). That earlier work came essentially from the son’s perspective as he rebelled against being sent away to boarding school. In Mommy Dolan re-addresses the emotional balance of his first film, showing us the complications that an ADHD teenager only loosely under control brings to a parent who’s trying to do her best against the odds. Sometimes she gives back as good as she gets, and they're on at each other in loud, often blisteringly sweary French.

 'Mommy' is a film all about constriction and release

The parallel is explicit, given that actress Anne Dorval from I Killed My Mother returns as Diana “Die” Despres in Mommy, paired with blond live-wire newcomer Antoine Olivier Pilon as her son Steve (main picture). Suzanne Clément, from Dolan’s third film Laurence Anyways, completes the main cast as schoolteacher Kyla, managing impressively to make her silences and reticence speak out over the noise of the in-our-faces performances of the other two.

Dorval’s character is a survivor, who goes through a confrontational car crash in the opening scene as she goes to collect Steve from the children’s home from which he’s being thrown out. Her husband has died some years earlier but remains a fascination for his son, who connects to him most through a compilation music cassette which also provides the film’s evocative soundtrack of past pop numbers (that element is another Dolan favourite).

She’s aiming to home-school him, but with the demands of her own precarious working life that comes to nothing. Which makes the appearance of Kyla, who becomes somehow spontaneously caught up in the emotional battlefield she’s witnessing from across the road, all the more timely, and the the woman manages to create a certain kind of equilibrium with the boy. It works both ways: as Steve calms down, Kyla seems to overcome some of her own inhibitions.

But there’s something almost primal in Steve’s character that means he lives off his energy, the highs that see him discovering his everyday Quebec surroundings and infusing them with a particular sense of wonder. The director and his cinematographer André Turpin play off their choice of the square format by widening the screen on two occasions to present us with different interpretations of the lives we see depicted. The first time Steve himself stretches the screen out to convey the sense that he’s reached a place of heightened perception (pictured above); the second time it’s a dream sequence in which we see his future life as it might have been rather than as it will be.

Dolan experimented with similar variations of screen ratio in his previous film Tom at the Farm, and apparently Turpin had always wanted to work in the 1:1 ratio. It produces an initially curious, increasingly mesmeric effect. It may be the format of the selfie, but it also recalls the 6x6 format used by photographers, which gives it the associations of an art still. It shows just how much this packed drama is literally compressed into its physical space. Mommy is a film all about such constriction and release, and Dolan has certainly stretched his filmmaking muscles in making it.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Mommy

 

We’re buffeted by the conflicting emotions of love and anger as mother and son fire up their downbeat home environment

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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