Xavier Dolan, writer and director of films such as Tom At The Farm and I Killed My Mother, continues his exploration into mother-son relationships with Mommy. A French-Canadian production and winner of the Jury prize at last years Cannes Festival; it’s set in a near-future Canada, where a law has been passed that allows parents to hand over their children to the state, without any kind of legal due process. Regular Dolan collaborator, Anne Dorval, plays Diane (Die) Després; a widow, who is struggling to bring up her ADHD suffering, and often violent son, Steve. When a shy, stuttering neighbour enters their lives and agrees to home school Steve, the three form a close relationship that may just save Steve from being institutionalised. But when Steve’s violent past comes back to haunt them, his freedom is put at risk.
The first thing you’ll notice when watching Mommy is that the aspect ratio seems off, to the point where you might think that you were watching some dodgy copy, that was filmed on someone’s phone. Fear not though, this is wholly intentional, as Dolan uses the portrait camerawork as an additional tool to create tension, and mood. With the action confined to such a small space, Mommy is oppressive; claustrophobic; and leaves us with a sense of something missing within the black spaces either side. The pinpoint focus allows Dolan to get right into the characters faces, which usually fill the screen, to sometimes uncomfortable effect. However, where the real genius lies in terms of the aspect ratio, is the few moments where it expands to widescreen, in a cleverly natural way. These moments are usually ones filled with hope, and blissful freedom from the reality of their lives. But they are heartbreakingly short lived and it isn’t long before the world begins to close in around them again.
The surprisingly brilliant technical work in Mommy, is only part of the reason why it’s so successful. This aspect never takes over, but actually adds to the unease of the narrative, in what is a difficult film to watch. There’s a great sense of realism about it all, as the film deals with violence and the unbreakable bond between mother and son, whilst an incestuous undercurrent runs throughout it. You never really get a sense of where the film may be heading, but there’s an unescapable sense of foreboding, that is rather bizarrely set up perfectly by the use of Dido’s ‘White Flag’, at the beginning of the film. It may sound vomit inducing, but it oddly works here, with other Brit-hits such as Wonderwall, also making a musical appearance. However, for all of its volatile edge, Mommy is balanced out with these beautiful scenes of euphoric happiness, that make it tender, touching, and heartbreaking viewing; as well as dark and disturbing.
So much hinders on the performances though, and here, they are exceptional. Anne Dorval is appropriately nuanced as Die, who at times seems just as aggressive and vulgar as he troubled son, but who at other times is completely likeable. It is Antione-Olivier Pilon who really impressed me though, with his ferocious portrayal of Steve. It’s a muscular performance, that’s full of spit and grit; but it’s one that is filled with charm too, as Pilon seems to achieve the impossible, in making his character investible, and sympathetic, if not a little likeable at times. The real star of Mommy though is the director, Xavier Dolan, who at the age of 26 (!) has already proven himself as a great film-maker of raw, humanist stories. The talent itself and the prospect of their future in film, is enough in itself to make Mommy an incredibly exciting film. It’s technically interesting, but more importantly, emotionally impactful. It’s altogether painful, shocking, uncomfortable, funny, sweet, and lovely; and Whiplash aside, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com