* Warning- this review contains spoilers.
I’ve been recording forever. I’m a watcher. I’m a stalker. I love everything about people. It’s always been a passion for me to observe. Xavier Dolan.
Born in Québec, Canada in 1989, actor, writer and director Xavier Dolan made his first feature at the age of 19; the critically acclaimed I Killed My Mother (2009), followed by Heartbeats (2010), Laurence Anyways (2012) and Tom at the Farm (2013). Released across the UK in March 2015, Dolan’s latest film Mommy (2014) is an intense, visually accomplished, deeply compassionate film and a milestone in the career of its (then) 25 year old Director. Clearly it’s a film made with love and creatively striving towards light; remarkably without judgement about parenting or mental illness. Dolan’s keen observations of human behaviour acknowledge that “good people” don’t necessarily make “good parents” and he establishes beautifully, in visual terms, the complexity of individuals dealing with life the best way they know how. Although the premise of the film may sound familiar; a lone parent trying to home school her violent, disruptive teenage son after he has been expelled from a detention centre, from the opening sequence an unexpected vision is immediately drawn into view.
The 1:1 square aspect ratio creates a portrait orientation and shape of projection familiar to an entire generation as the Selfie. However André Turpin’s cinematography and Dolan’s writing/direction elevate the form beyond the merely self-referential. Although the film was shot in the district Dolan grew up in and the central character Steve is (by the director’s own admission) a projection of his own anger, what emerges is considerably more expansive than just a self-conscious framing device. We are first introduced via a black screen and text to the idea in “a fictional Canada” of an S-14 bill which allows parents to place their out of control children in the care of a public hospital without due legal process. In the opening shot Dolan introduces us to the child in question; clearly a male teenager from the comic book style boxer shorts hung out on the line; his vulnerability made clear by the intimate item of clothing blowing in the wind. In the background, out of focus, we become aware of presence of a woman reaching towards a tree, then plucking an apple from it in close up, her had grasping forwards, childlike, bathed in luminous warmth and sunlight. Before we see her face the camera pans up from high heels to sequined jeans; as Dolan has described in interview (the director designs costumes for all his films) “even before a character opens their mouth their costume speaks”.
When we do see her face of Diane ((Anne Dorval), the camera dwells on her, eyes closed, the character serenely framed in music, sunshine and dignity. In those first few moments we are made aware of her tending / harvesting fruit from the tree and of feminine duality; sensuousness and motherhood. The illumination of this scene resists defining the character stereotypically according to gender or class. Ironically the focus of the aspect ratio/ portrait orientation immediately presents a wider view of possibility in relation to the audience’s assumptions about the character. What we learn during the course of the film is that this single Mum, Diane (D.I.E.) Despres is a widow, devoted to her son Steve ( Antoine- Olivier Pilon)who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Attachment Disorder. Dolan’s writing and Pilon’s amazing, subtly nuanced performance allows us to see infinitely more than the diagnosis. Steve is innately volatile, foul mouthed, aggressive, violent and provocative, but he is also childlike, tender, protective and undeniably exuberant; bursting with life, humour and undeniable energy. He is a character who in many ways is trapped inside his own head, unable to sustain relationships, moving from one reactive, explosive episode to the next. Dolan conveys this beautifully through sound, reduced to a bass beat of music and pure adrenalin or offered in contrast to the images we see as a psychological layer of experience and memory. The camerawork is instinctively empathic, it follows close to the characters, the viewer walks behind them, touching the hairs on the back of the neck, almost in their shoes and we gain a felt sense of their perceptive shifts in close up.
In one sequence, we see Steve shot from below in an elevated position on a bridge against bright blue sky, headphones on, with the distinctly minor key piano introduction of Counting Crows song Colorblind leading the audience. As he moves through the streets on his longboard (skateboard), the camera follows beside him like a companion and the viewer hears what the character does not, as he moves to the beat of a mute Rap track. The lyrics of the soundtrack against the confident movement of a guy we could pass in the street on a brilliant sunny day but never really see, convey the sadness and isolation within. He is a child; “Taffy stuck and tongue tied” and a young man on the cusp of adulthood; “I am covered in skin, no one gets to come in, pull me out from inside, I am folded and unfolded and unfolding, I am colorblind”… “coffee black and egg white”…“I am ready, I am ready, I am ready, I am fine.” Dolan consistently delivers more than just a Hipster soundtrack with a range of sound and music that informs our understanding of the characters and their predicament, not simply mirroring emotion or action on screen but revealing their emotional and psychological core. Dolan’s soundtrack is also significantly dominated by a mixed tape from Steve’s dead Father.
The cycles of life punctuated by inner cycles of emotional connect and disconnect are visualised in the poignant and poetic sight of Steve playing alone with a shopping trolley, spiralling into a destructive act. The adults in his orbit are equally prone to rage when pushed to the limit and there are times when the roles of parent/ care giver and helpless child are visibly reversed. When Steve and his mother Diane befriend their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément ) who literally and metaphorically cannot express herself, it is a catalyst for change in all their lives. Although we do not entirely learn Kyla’s backstory, it is clear that she has moved with her boyfriend and child away from some kind of traumatic incident. An ex- high school teacher on “sabbatical”, not yet ready to go back to teaching kids and with a portrait of a blonde male child, not unlike a younger Steve, absent from the home implicates loss. When Kyla agrees to help with Steve’s home schooling to allow Diane to go out to work she begins to blossom, her stutter improves and she begins to bond with the teenager and his Mother. We learn that when Kyla comes to dinner with Steve and Diane it is the first time she has been out since they moved and as they dance in the kitchen to Celine Dion’s On ne change pas, a perfectly pitched reference to our hidden selves, we see aspects of all three characters begin to unfold, in the acceptance of each other’s company. In this context Steve in nail polish and black eyeliner dancing with two older women harks back to a glance he exchanges with another boy in the street and removes the idea of seduction from the scene. Steve serenades Kyla and the viewer simultaneously, the camera and audience becoming a partner in the dance.
This intimate focus expands visually in a street scene where Steve’s hands and outstretched arms expand our physical and metaphorical view to widescreen and Diane, Kyla and Steve take a turn in the road, albeit temporarily. Hope is at the core of this film in spite of the raw and uncompromising exchanges between its central characters and the cruel inference of fate. One of the most affecting scenes is a time lapse sequence set to a cycle of syncopated string music, Ludovico Einandi’s Experience, increasing in tempo as Diane’s hopes and dreams for her son are visualised. At first we cannot tell if these are actual memories or aspirational dreams. Like Steve’s mother having taken the journey with the character we are conditioned to want the traditional happy ending; the graduation, the girlfriend, the marriage, Steve’s dream of getting into Julliard realised,eventually leaving his Mother to pursue his own life and freeing them both. Gradually we spin out of focus and reality hits, it’s raining and Diane is still stationary in the confinement of the car, driving her son to be committed to an institution. It’s an act which tears them both apart but also as Diane states; “I sent him there because I have hope- I am full of hope”… (and) “hopeful people can change things”-a statement by a director in a generation of uncertainty.
In the final frames as the institution guards release the straps on Steve’s straightjacket he bolts down the corridor, a range of expressions flit across his face from mischievous child to absolute determination and we follow in slow motion as he launches himself towards a a floor to ceiling window. Is he about to literally throw himself through it and fall to his death– or like the director transform that window into another self-referential frame? The black screen, all that we’ve witnessed and Lana Del Ray’s Born to Die invite us to draw our own conclusions.
All three lead performances in Mommy are exceptional and the quality of Dolan’s whole production make it a deserving winner of the Jury prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, France’s César award for Best Foreign Film 2015 and Canadian Screen Awards for Best Motion Picture, Achievement in Direction, Achievement in Editing and Best Original Screenplay. Mommy is a powerful reminder of the way that our world and individual horizons expand with hope and rapidly diminish without it. Dolan’s sixth directorial feature The Life and Death of John. F.Donovan starring Jessica Chastain is currently in pre-production and I know I won’t be alone in looking forward to its release.
Mommy- International Trailer
Interview with Xavier Dolan on Mommy, family and John F. Donovan – YouTube
The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC): Mommy – Interview with Xavier Dolan – The Film Book by Benjamin B.6th February 2015.
Listen to the Soundtrack For Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’- Film Stage, Leonard Pearce October22, 2014.