Video review: Xavier Dolan explores space and self in ‘Mommy’

Full text of review…

Xavier Dolan burst onto the scene at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 at the age of 19, flinging adolescent rage-induced barbs at his on screen mother (played by Anne Dorval) in I Killed My Mother, a shallow but assured debut from the multi hyphenate. Six years later, after exploring romance through lush melodrama, and cold blooded thriller, Dolan is back in familial territory with Mommy, an exuberant, foul-mouthed, confronting and messy, yet deeply loving film. Centered around a mother (Diane, played by Anne Dorval), her violent son who has recently been expelled from boarding school (Steve, played by Antione Olivier Pilon), and their mysterious neighbour (Kyla, played by Suzanne Clement), Mommy explores the mother-son relationship again, except, this time, the tables are turned.

Dolan’s turning point both in terms of maturity and style, after the distinctly 60s inspired and Pedro Almodovar influenced films I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, came in 2012 in the form of Laurence Anyways, a two and a half hour long and decade spanning opus. Laurence expertly handles two hefty topics – personal genesis, and how love is affected by said personal development. There is a handful of scenes in the film that are perfect exemplars of how the film delivers perfect emotional payoff, but perhaps none more so than the third to last, set ten years after Laurence and Fred first meet. A handful of years since they last saw each other, they meet in a bar, both having markedly changed as a result of their turbulent relationship. Laurence tells Fred of her decision to age as a woman, and Fred no longer has the flame coloured hair and bright clothes that were as loud of her exuberant personality. They blend into the black walls of the bar where they meet. The room feels small and oppressive, a painful reminder of the past, that now must be let go. After awkward small talk is made, the darkness gradually encroaching on Laurence and Fred more, Fred escapes from the darkness, and, as a result, the past. Pushing the back door open to the alleyway behind her, the world opens up, brightness and freedom blowing in with a strong gust of wind. The camera looks to the sky as Fred runs down the street, no longer restricted by the chains of the past; bright and limitless.

Across his five film long first chapter of his career, traversing the territory from late adolescence in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats to adulthood with Laurence Anyways and to a lesser extent, Tom at the Farm, Dolan has continually explored the relationship between space and self. It is an interesting and fitting point to continually return to for a filmmaker, because despite his gradually developing powerful sense of style, he is still mostly defined by his youth.

After all, it’s a time where the world is most closed. One is restricted by commitments and lack of money that restrict wider travel or discovery, where school or university work loads limit time to socialise with others, leading to there being no one to explore and act out towards but oneself and those close to you – mostly your parents. It’s somewhat a necessity, a period that may seem deeply self-centered, but is essential to discover one self before adulthood begins. We put ourselves together, finding the pieces that fit perfectly together, moments of realisation and utter clarity commonly chronicled in Tumblr posts or diary entries as a mess of often self-loathing or passive-aggressive angst wrapped in fantasy and somehow linked to all the things we love most, like in I Killed My Mother

In Dolan’s early work, this was done much the same way as it is in Laurence Anyways, through boldly coloured settings and a camera positioned like a trained eye, again placing the characters against them, making the rooms feel narrow, and the world boxed in as a result. 

In Tom at the Farm, however, Dolan’s experimentation with space expanded beyond purely the location into also the presentation. In his thriller he started to play with aspect ratio, making a widescreen film more widescreen in moments of terror to evoke a suffocating feeling and rising sense of dread. 

In Mommy, however, it’s a matter of both atmosphere and focus. Dolan’s films are exuberant, full of bold colours and sounds, whether his common use of 80s pop music or the orchestral score of Tom at the Farm, the type that characters could get lost in, the audiences focus waning to the background. After swapping primary brights for muddy, rural Quebec in Tom at the Farm, Mommy once again occurs in a suburban household full of bright lights, primary colour painted walls, and 80s pop music. However, this time, character takes the same precedence as it did in Laurence Anyways, bursting off the screen beyond the stylistic elements, and grabbing the audiences attention through its use of 1:1 aspect ratio that expands at moments of freedom, clarity, and almost fantasy; moving beyond the restrictive walls of the house to the wider world. 

This type of genesis, where Dolan’s experimentation and forming visual and narrative style, is found all through Mommy. I Killed My Mother was driven by adolescent rage, quickly escalating emotions that result in an unmatched type of passion, something that made his debut so eye-catching. But I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats were undoubtedly influenced by the time in one’s life where relationships to parents are by viewing them as an antagonist and anger and sadness builds up and dissipates, self-centred and introspective. Like that transformation that his work underwent when making Laurence Anyways, where, for the first time (and definitely not the last) his central character was a middle aged woman, and he relegated his acting role to a second long cameo; Mommy is the flipside of I Killed My Mother, a loving portrait of and centered on the mother figure from the perspective of someone that now identifies more with her than the son.

While its unnecessary framing as speculative fiction results in it lacking the flooring, pitch-perfect final sweep of Laurence Anyways, opting for something more sudden and ambiguous, and a yearning for a character to be slightly more developed, there is no denying that Mommy is a film that expertly encompasses Dolan’s spectacular journey over his four previous films. Placing both Dorval and Clement, actors who have appeared in all of his films except for Tom at the Farm, at the centre along with then 16 year old Pilon, this powerhouse trio run the audience through the full gamut of emotions with explosive chemistry, their remarkable performances reason enough to watch. Dorval and Clement’s characters are the type of Dolan mainstays that are much adored and expertly and lovingly written, a trend starting with Hubert and Nico’s mothers (both played by Dorval) in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, respectively; taking full form in Laurence Anyways‘s Fred (played by Clement);  and to a lesser extent in Tom at the Farm’s Sara (played by Evelyne Brochu, who originated the role on stage in 2011). Combined with the fluid employment of Dolan’s stylistic flair, from his use of classic Celine Dion tracks to slow motion, Dolan has closed the first chapter of his career before his English language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan III with a raw, intense, messy, and emotionally draining; yet compassionate, vibrant, and excellently crafted film.

Rating: 4.5/5

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