Mother’s lit­tle helper

Xavier Dolan’s tale of a trou­bled teen and his mum es­tab­lishes him as one of the era’s es­sen­tial au­teurs, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

An­toine Olivier Pilon in Mommy

MOMMY Di­rected by Xavier Dolan. Star­ring Anne Dor­val, Suzanne Cle­ment, An­toine Olivier Pilon, Pa­trick Huard, Alexan­dre Goyette, Michele Li­tuac, Vi­viane Pa­cal, Nathalie Hamel-Roy. Club, IFI, Dublin, Light House, Dublin. 137mins At last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, this lat­est work from Xavier Dolan, a 25-year-old Québé­cois con­juror, shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Go­dard’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­com­pro­mis­ing Good­bye to Lan­guage. It was hardly an ac­ci­dent that the jury cou­pled the oc­to­ge­nar­ian with the wun­derkind.

Although Dolan’s emo­tional in­con­ti­nence would ap­pal aus­tere late-JLG, both films show an en­thu­si­asm for plate-rat­tling for­mal ex­peri- ment of the most en­er­gis­ing stripe.

A sort of apolo­gia for the direc­tor’s de­but, I Killed My Mother, Mommy de­tails the spiky re­la­tion­ship be­tween Steve (An­toine Olivier Pilon), a trou­bled teen with some vari­a­tion of ADHD, and his dis­or­gan­ised, charis­matic, of­ten fab­u­lous mum Die (Anne Dor­val).

A brief glance at the trailer will re­veal Dolan’s most dar­ing flour­ish. The pic­ture is shot in a lit­tle-used square ra­tio that, among other cre­ative re­stric­tions, se­verely lim­its the ac­tors’ free­dom to move within the frame. The direc­tor’s de­ci­sion has sev­eral pur­poses. Oddly, at­tuned to a land­scape tra­di­tion, the cin­e­matic brain tends to re­or­gan­ise the un­ex­pected im­age into a por­trait ra­tio that sug­gests the smart­phone screens through which Steve’s gen­er­a­tion ex­pe­ri­ence so much of life. More im­por­tantly, the con­stric­tions ref­er­ence the psy­cho­log­i­cal pri­son that – a few brief mo­ments of epiphany aside – drives the boy to such parox­ysms of frus­tra­tion.

None of this dry the­o­ris­ing should dis­tract from the sheer an­tic en­ergy on dis­play. Mommy is a hugely emo­tional film that makes no apolo­gies for its en­gage­ment with the ripest melo­drama.

Alas, we begin with a mi­nor mis­step. The screen fills with a leg­end telling us that the movie takes place in an al­ter­nate Que­bec where par­ents have the right to put chil­dren into care with­out go­ing through the courts. View­ers ex­pect­ing Or­wellian dystopia will be dis­ap­pointed. The slo­gan seems to be a patch to cor­rect a sup­posed nar­ra­tive flaw that – had it not been so high­lighted – few would have wor­ried about. No mat­ter. It is a small thing.

Af­ter be­ing booted out of his spe­cial school for set­ting the cafe­te­ria on fire, Steve is sent home to live with Die in a cor­ner of Mon­treal that could be any sub­ur­ban nowhere. They form a daz­zling bi­nary star sys­tem. He is end­lessly loud, undis­ci­plined and charis­matic. She is brash, vul­gar and em­pa­thetic. There is a sense through­out of Die work­ing hard to man­age a volatile chem­i­cal re­ac­tion: ev­ery now and then Steve’s charm­ing, chat­ter­ing an­ar­chy boils over into vi­o­lence or in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­ti­macy.

The fiery pair even­tu­ally fall in with a calmer per­son­al­ity across the street. Kyla (Suzanne Clé­ment), a school­teacher fright­ened away from work by a de­bil­i­tat­ing speech im­ped­i­ment, agrees to help Steve with his stud­ies, but soon be­comes the sub­ject of his taunts and du­bi­ous af­fec­tions.

Mommy is awash with for­mal ex­per­i­ments and di­rec­to­rial flour­ishes. But it is the rich char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion that most sets the film apart. All three prin­ci­pals are, in their dif­fer­ent ways, walk­ing dis­as­ters. Steve just can’t stop him­self from burst­ing so­ci­eties’ norms. Kyla ap­pears im­pris­oned in her own neu­roses. Dor­val makes some­thing ut­terly time­less of the ti­tle char­ac­ter: a brassy sur­vivor at war with her own vi­vac­ity who, in an ear­lier age, would have given Joan Craw­ford or Bette Davis much to chew upon. The im­prac­ti­cal in­sta­bil­ity of the pas­sion­ate re­la­tion­ship be­tween mother and son fires ten­sion – and queasi­ness – into ev­ery vi­brant, chaotic scene.

Al­ready on his fifth film, Dolan is hereby es­tab­lished as one of the era’s es­sen­tial au­teurs. There are small mir­a­cles in this film. You don’t be­lieve me? About half­way through, Xavier of­fers us a scene that, de­spite be­ing scored to Oa­sis’s Won­der­wall, man­ages a unique emo­tional tran­scen­dence.

Mind you, the direc­tor was five years old when the song came out. He prob­a­bly thinks about it the way some of us think about the real Bea­tles.

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