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
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.