Mommy (2014)

3:00 PM

Xavier Dolan just turned 25 years old, and Mommy marks his fifth feature film already. At the Cannes Film Festival this year, Mommy shared the Jury Prize and is an official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. I sometimes forget that Canada is considered foreign according to the Academy Awards; but I guess considering even the most seasoned French-speaker might have trouble with the fast-paced, heavily-accented Québecois French, a film like Mommy can seem like it’s from a different world all together.

Québecois cinema is an incredibly important piece of the Canadian film scene. I've always felt that Québec expresses through cinema, a kind of collective cultural dissonance with English-speaking Canada that we can’t truly begin to understand. The province is widely viewed as culturally-autonomous, owing in large part to French being the official language, coupled with the concentrated efforts to preserve that key defining aspect of Québec culture. It’s no surprise then that many French-Canadian films, in a barely-bilingual, oft-times ostracizing country are characterized by coming of age themes or ones of self-identity conflicts. Take for instance films like Mon Oncle Antoine (1970), C.R.A.Z.Y (2005), or Xavier Dolan’s 2012 film Laurence Anyways. 
Mommy, Dolan’s latest film continues to tackle these hurdles of growth and self-identity and then some. 

Die (Anne Dorval) is the “mommy” in question, a brash, working-class Québecois who spews profane-tinged joual (linguistic features associated with Québec French), and rocks heels and mini-skirts on the daily. Very un-Mommy-like on first sight. Steve (Anotine-Olivier Poinel) is her son, crude like his mother, but with a tempestuous spirit that brings him from exorbitant joy to rage-blinded hate at the drop of a hat. Steve calls his mother by her first name; “Mommy” is actually derived from the likely-thieved necklace gifted to Die by her son. Calligraphic and immortalized in cheap gold, it's something you might have earnestly picked up for your Mum in Grade two when $10 was an awful lot of money, and Claire’s was the height of sophistication. But, coming from Steve, it’s a sweet, albeit suspicious gesture. In the first moments of Mommy, Die is T-Boned in an intersection on her way to pick up Steve from a reform school from which he has been expelled for setting fire to the cafeteria (a statement about which Die is disturbingly unsurprised). Die, a widowed single parent is now the sole remaining hope for Steve, having exhausted the hospitals and schools capable of dealing with her ADHD afflicted, hot-tempered son. Joining the dynamic duo is neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a teacher with a speech impediment on sabbatical and clearly desperately in need of a new kind of human interaction. Kyla and Die become friends and Kyla agrees to tutor Steve while Die tries to work to keep herself and Steve going. All together, they create a perfectly dysfunctional little family, each with something to learn from one another. 

The first thing you'll notice about Mommy is that Dolan made a bold decision in regards to aspect ratio. Wes Anderson did something similar earlier this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, where we saw different timelines played out in ratios of 1.3, 1.85 and 2.35:1, but Dolan exhibits his work in 1:1 which is essentially a square, flanked by blocks of black. The initial introduction to a 1:1 aspect ratio is strange at first, but after a few minutes, it’s easy to adjust to. A restricted screen at times creates a powerful and beautiful symmetry, and as the scene moves to a fro, the focus becomes off kilter, much to the effect of its characters’ inner turmoils. Dolan however slips in a few moments of full screen, which  are breathtakingly cathartic after spending so long in the cramped conditions of the 1:1. Dolan might be utilizing the effect to simulate the inescapability of the situations he is capturing, and it’s certainly inventive, and effective for the most part, but it’s certainly not completely necessary. If a sense of claustrophobia was his desired effect, it could have been achieved in any number of ways less limiting than an unconventional aspect ratio. But again, it could very well be worth it just for those beautiful, brief tastes of normalcy

Mommy is no question a difficult film to experience, but it’s also incredibly funny. I’d even venture to say it's hilarious at times. But moments of laughter are inevitably followed by much of the same trouble from Steve that plagues the film. These shifts from laughter to overwhelming dread throughout the film though subtly mirror Steve’s threatening unpredictability, as we go from playful joking between mother and son, to physically dangerous and uncurbed tantrums in a matter of seconds.

In one of those rare unencumbered scenes, Die, Kyla and Steve dance in the kitchen to Céline Dion’s “On ne change pas”. The lyrics spell out one the inherent difficulties of the film. On ne change pas. We don’t change. Steve will fly off the handle, and then lapse into a state of regret and contrition, followed eventually by another violent outburst. His behaviour is predictably cyclical, and maybe more than Die can actually handle. Sadly, Mommy is about hope and unconditional love and how sometimes those two things just might not be enough. 

Mommy (2014)
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
139 minutes | Canada

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