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Mommy – Xavier Dolan’s Breathtaking, Revisionist Coming of Age

As the Cannes Film Fest nears its close, one of the last major films to screen in competition is Xavier Dolan’s latest, teasingly called Mommy. Exuberant, unpredictable, and unconventional, Mommy pulls you into a corrupt relationship between mother and son which has long since ceased being a healthy one. This is not unfamiliar territory for the 25-year-old filmmaker, who seems endlessly obsessed with the oppressive, irresistible icon of Mother. Even still, much of this film moves beyond that relationship dynamic into a stylized world of human behavior as entertaining as it is revealing. Dolan’s camera springs to life, and in an instant it almost feels as though a new school of cinema is being born.

Overtly sexual, sometimes campy, bitchy and funny — Dolan’s writing has a unique thumbprint. You expect all of that from his films. But here, he takes you on a wild ride, dives and dips wildly into a claustrophobic world of almost-incest, mommy lust, mommy disgust and an exploration what happens when troubled parents raise troubled kids they then can’t control. With all of the drugged-up kids coming of age now and in the years to come, Mommy offers up a look at how some of these kids might turn out once they are forced to try their hand at life.

The film follows the story of single mother Diane (Anne Dorval) and her unstable son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who somehow form a bond with their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). At first, the mommy lust jokes are kind of funny, with Steve slapping his mother’s ass and referencing her provocative attire. Anyone watching this might rightly feel a tad confused. Nonetheless, Kyla is drawn to Steve, for reasons unknown. A high school boy playfully hangs out with two older women who care for him, home school him, laugh and party with him. They seem to have found a happy, healthy family balance, and yet this dynamic is anything but.

Steve is trouble, in and out of foster homes whenever his mother can’t handle him. Now that she has him back, the trouble inevitably starts and the cycle repeats. Pilon is fantastic as an uncorked young man who taunts older women with a clever slide of his tongue against his teeth, or one look up and down their bodies. He knows how to relate to them on unsettling levels. As violent and often loathsome as Steve may be, Pilon brings a palpable vulnerability to the role reminiscent of Brando or James Dean.

But the real star of the film is Anne Dorval, a frontrunner for Best Actress here at Cannes. In her hot pants and platform heels, with her ubiquitous cigarette, false eyelashes, frosty lipstick, and acrylic nails, Dorval is the kind of woman who’s a long way from abandoning her sexuality. Her love for her son must always be colored by her own inability to control her own volatile temper. She lashes out, he lashes out, and before long someone has to go to the hospital. Their love is undeniable, even if his for her is probably inappropriate and perhaps vice versa.

Dolan delights in flirting with the edges of incest, asking us from the start to decide for ourselves if there is anything sexual happening between them.

As mothers we form very intimate attachments with our young. It is so intimate, in fact, that the love bond between mother and child can overwhelm both sides. A mother’s love can be so strong it leaves no room for any other kind of love. It is a biological urgency in many cases, even when the child isn’t biologically yours. To be a mother, as every mother knows, is to understand why you came equipped with so many different gears and coping mechanisms.

The love between a mother and son — especially that of a single parent and an older child — can become so intense that the two might continue to live out their lives that way and be perfectly content. But there’s sometimes a darker area that no one really ever wants to talk about and in fact, no hardly anyone does unless it’s on a porn site. Oedipus Rex went there, so did Hamlet, so did Freud — the idea that some boys want to make it with their mothers is the eternal stuff that therapy sessions are made on.

The most surprising thing about the film isn’t the three-way character dynamic. And it isn’t Dolan’s marvelous choice of music that reflects the era of the mother’s own youth. The soundtrack helps to give the film a much-needed uplift and also relaxes its structure to a dreamlike state, like some of the offbeat storytelling found on youtube. If time is a flat circle because now everything is readily available online, Dolan’s world can invent itself at will, then turn around and reinvent itself. He doesn’t back off following his elastic instincts.

No, the most surprising thing about Mommy is how Dolan plays with the conventions of cinema, the size of the frame, for instance, or the angles to convey mood, or the flash-forwards that play out like broken dreams, lulling you into a kind of ecstasy before cruelly reeling you back to reality. The film bounds back and forth between these two orbits, bringing light and life on the one hand, and desperation on the other. At one point the Cannes audience burst into spontaneous applause at the way Dolan simply rewrote the rules about the shape of the film frame.

Xavier Dolan, at the ripe old age of 25, already has a reputation as a cinematic wunderkind. The weight of immense expectations weigh heavier and heavier with every new film he creates. He is a blank canvas upon which buried dreams play out. Orson Welles was 24 when he made Citizen Kane, which sets the bar enormously high for any young filmmaker who is pulled violently along by a hunger to shatter the conventions that were laid down before him. Dolan’s oeuvre is already well known within the community of film critics who have been following along. Some love him, some hate him and some can’t see past their love for his earlier films, believing he may never surpass Heartbeats or Lawrence Anyways.

He writes the films he directs, so to watch Dolan at work is to immerse oneself completely in his fever dream, a dream that remains fascinating in its fearless reach across boundaries, its desire to tear down convention and start anew, and the driving force of glam vulgarity throughout.

The first thing people will ask you upon exiting one of Xavier Dolan’s films is “how does it stack up against his others?” He is very likely headed for that unavoidable wall when some critics begin to resist as he evolves past his first early films. And yet, Dolan will likely be remembered as one of the most influential filmmakers of his time, his footprints not yet measured, his impact not fully seen for years — not until the myth that his best films are behind him can be extinguished. He’s 25. He just made one of the best films at the Cannes film festival. There is nothing about Xavier Dolan to suggest that his best is already behind him.

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12 Comments

  1. Bryce Forestieri
    May 21, 2014

    I’ll check this out.

  2. JCB
    May 21, 2014

    Go Xavier GO ! And for those who haven’t seen his previous, just released a few months ago, Tom at the Farm, don’t miss it either.

  3. filmboymichael
    May 21, 2014

    I love his works – each film is a slow burn that. I loved the look of Laurence Anyways – some shots were beautiful paintings streaked with bold colours and the perfect musical accompaniment.

    Look forward to this – I can’t believe this guy is all of 25 and as accomplished as he is.

  4. Alan of Montreal
    May 21, 2014

    Anne Dorval was great in J’ai tue ma mere. I guess she’s Dolan’s go-to actress for mothers. I’m glad he’s not acting in this, though–I find him to be rather overbearing onscreen

  5. Alan of Montreal
    May 21, 2014

    It’s also nice to see you giving so much attention to Canadian cinema, Sasha (even if one of them was a terrible experience for you)

  6. Kevin Landry
    May 22, 2014

    While I’m really ecstatic to see a Quebec filmmaker receive so much attention in Cannes, I’m one of those who believe that, if Dolan dropped his one-man-band styled movie making and actually hire at the very least a competent editor, his movies would be way more enjoyable.

  7. May 22, 2014

    He did the whole aspect ratio switch-up in Tom at the Farm. I think he might have done it more than once, in fact, though I only noticed it once. I felt like it ought to have annoyed me, since so many of his other directorial tics do, but then I do appreciate some of what he does.

    Hopefully he’s found a way to reign in some of his sillier affectations, at last, and hone his direction down to something stronger and more impactful than I saw in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm.

  8. May 22, 2014

    He did the whole aspect ratio switch-up in Tom at the Farm. I think he might have done it more than once, in fact, though I only noticed it once.

    He’s played with reframing tricks in all his movies, but always before it’s been organic, maintaining the same overall aspect ratio and creating frames within frames.

  9. AnnaZed
    May 23, 2014

    Sasha, thanks for this eloquent post. I’m not there (so of course I don’t know!), but – though I am super excited to see ‘Leviathan’- a part of me really really wants them to give the Palm to Dolan; just to shake things up a bit.

  10. Robin Write
    May 23, 2014

    “At one point the Cannes audience burst into spontaneous applause at the way Dolan simply rewrote the rules about the shape of the film frame.”

    This excites me. Both the audience reaction {this is always a huge part of Cannes}, and the rewriting of film frame rules. And that this guy is so young. A lot of people who love film won’t have even heard of him. Is the world really this small?!

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