Language: French, English
Director/Writer: Xavier Dolan
Cinematography: André Turpin
Xavier Dolan, Canadian enfant terribile’s fifth feature, MOMMY is gratifyingly his maturest work to date, won the Jury Prize in Cannes last year, and gutsily challenges our traditional cinema habit by altering the frame to an idiosyncratic 1:1 aspect ratio – bar two exceptions of 16:9 ratio sequences involving a soul-liberating celebration of life and a fanciful imagination of a mother indulging in her proudest moments of his son, which is quite a bravura to pull off, centralises its characters and dramatises their interactions and emotions.
Retracing to the central theme of his smash debut I KILLED MY MOTHER (2009) at the age of 19, but sans the queer label, MOMMY is concentrated on Diane (Dorval), a middle-aged widow and his teenage son Steve (Pilon), who is diagnosed with ADHD and afflicted with a proclivity of violence and self-abuse, apart from other misconduct in the present Canada. Their intimate mother-son life-pattern has gone through an extensive scrutiny from Dolan’s invading camera with a tagline like this – sometimes love cannot save one person, anticipates the finale. They fight and reconcile, confess their love but also swear to each other and even roughhouse, she has to walk on thin ice with him while he is recalcitrant and rebellious.
Their volatile relationship has been wondrously balanced out since a new neighbour Kyla (Clément) barges into their life, her first intrusion happens exactly after a most violent incident could ever occurred between mother-and-son. Then the triangle starts to stabilise into a wholesome dynamism, Kyla, a compulsive stutter who claims to be a high school teacher on sabbatical and very evasive about her past, albeit she lives across the street with her husband and a young daughter. A semi-friend-semi-family liaison is luxuriantly budding between Kyla and the family, she home-schools Steve so that Diane can earn some extra money as a house cleaner, life is not easy, but all of them feel content and optimistic, they dance, bike/skateboarding, prepare food and dine together, here is when the first 16:9 ratio sequence exuberantly inserted literally by Steve extending the screen on his skateboard.
When Diane receives a citation from court, due to a previous wrongdoing of Steve, which demands a great sum of compensation, the screen retreats back to the square frame, life is just a winding road, a tentative plan to befriend with their lawyer neighbour Paul (Huard), who has always been flirtatious towards Diane, goes awry thanks to the uncooperative Steve. Strife emerges again and after Steve’s unsuccessful suicidal attempt (or just a way to raise attention and state his point, since who with a firm intent to die will cut his wrist in a packed supermarket?), Diane must make the most difficult decision after she ravishingly envisions a perfect future for Steve, the gorgeous-looking 16:9 section accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s sublime EXPERIENCE is the long-waited high point of this intensive drama, Dolan’s usual tricks – slow-motion, soft focus, close-up – are all consummately deployed in a fantasy we could only wish would be true for our protagonists. Not too soon we are sucked back to the grim reality, staring at the square again, a coercive separation, a heartrending goodbye and the ambiguous/unambiguous ending (Lana Del Rey’s BORN TO DIE is the closing credit melody), after all, it is not a film for those faint-hearted.
Within this close-knit cast, Dolan successfully sheds his pompous swagger to be overtly impressive and ostentatious which is often associated with a devil-may-care resolution among young filmmakers, and has trespassed the threshold of intolerance in HEARTBEATS (2010), my least favourite among his 5 features, instead, he patiently teases out the top-notch chemistry among his three main players, calculated in minute precision. Dorval, is utterly majestic to personify a stimulating mother image poles apart from I KILLED MY MOTHER, Diane has an uncouth and kitsch temperament which she cannot hide, then it materialises that it is a useful approach to communicate with her equally bad-mouthed son, but her unconditional love to Steve, sincere affinity with Kyla, and a strong faith in hope (the poor man’s luxury), all marks her as a remarkable and vivid human being out of Dorval’s outstanding dedication. Clément, another muse of Dolan, comes to the fore in her more introvert characteristic to hide her secret (a dead son in her past only fleetingly implied but never actually revealed), Kyla’s stutter is a convenient barometer of her emotional state and Clément is amazing to the hilt. As for the newcomer Pilon, his Stevie is a spitfire with explosive fierceness, a nightmare to any parenthood, with fitful charisma on the verge of dissipation at any minute due to inappropriate external stimulation, it is a prime casting choice and he chalks up a grandstanding presence.
From Sarah McLachlan, Dido, Counting Crows, Oasis, Lana Del Rey to Andrea Bocelli until the national treasure Celine Dion, etc. MOMMY’s soundtrack is an ear-worm hits collection, measures up to Dolan’s eclectic taste in music, emblazons the youthfulness and urbanization in his filmic tack, better than lighting up the mood, it coherently indicates the progression of diegesis which will continue to be one of Dolan’s trademarks. Finally, MOMMY positively attests that a prodigy can survive the inevitable backlash and hopefully evolve into a bonafide maestro, Dolan’s future cannot be brighter in this regard.