Director: Xavier Dolan
Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément
Spoilers Within: Yes
Film 15 – #83 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
“This world ain’t got tons of hope, but I like to think that it’s full of hopeful people, hoping all day long. It’s better off that way ‘cause hopeful people can change things. A hopeful world with hopeless people won’t get us far. I did what I did, so that way, there is hope.”
These words, uttered by Diane (Anne Dorval) in light of her ultimate decision, come at the end of her ability to mother her loving – albeit destructive – teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon): a decision made in desperation from an assumed lifetime of conflicts and violent outbursts. The setting is a hypothetical Canada in which parents have legal backing to commit their troubled offspring to public hospitals in the case of financial hardship, physical or psychological danger, or all three, without due process of law. Diane (heretofore known by her signatory name ‘Die’) comes to the excruciating outcome through a lens of hope, a lens that she is able to see through when no one else – not Paul (Patrick Huard) nor even Kyla (Suzanne Clément) – is capable.
This bold resolution is a difficult thing to comprehend on a personal level, but the astonishing performances from everyone assist in making it easier to recognise Die’s agony of choice. Every one of Steve’s reactions, be it of humour in a cheeky wink, vulgarity in a string of defensive swears, or an eruption of rage at the slightest of signals, are all borne of the love for his mother, and the pining for the return of his deceased father. His temper boils and boils until it explodes with terrifying authenticity, skillfully hitting opposite extremes within a single scene. The first true outburst – a flippant accusation of theft being the catalyst – is blisteringly intimidating as Die cowers from her son in a cupboard, fearing for her life as he screams obscenities at the woman who brought him into the world. Once the shattered glass and splintered bookcases have settled, each party throws playful apology’s at the other as if this incident is typical of their relationship. It doesn’t need to be cleared if this has occurred before because the aftermath suggests that these distressing battles are commonplace. It’s the hope that it goes no further that keeps them from leaving each other.
In Mommy, character traits are as delicate as possible when showy displays of both affection and turmoil are visible in each breath and glance, but it’s the quirks like Kyla’s sometimes disabling stutter that comes out as one of the smoothest transitions between faint quirk to emotionally weighted in a moment of pure anguish. Many scenes display this attention to compassion, but I’d argue none as better presented as Kyla’s inability to call out to Die during a trip to a hardware store, and in a film full of stand-out and unforgettable scenes, this one particularly called out to me: an innocent, sympathetic companion drawn into that which she can’t detach from.
The presentation of Mommy – in the perfectly square 1:1 ratio – is unusual, but as stated by Dolan, it acutely amplifies the characters’ emotions and sincerity. Initially, it suggests needless decoration, but that’s soon lost to the artistic atmosphere that never once felt overbearing or pretentious. However, this 1:1 ratio wouldn’t be as noteworthy were it not for the fourth-wall breaking (and fully unforeseen) ratio change, and though it came during a scene with one of my most hated songs of all time, it was a smartly manipulative way of showing the explicit happiness of Steve, Die and Kyla. This widening of the aspect from 1:1 to 1.85:1 during some scenes was beautifully done, relative to their joy and cheerfulness, then narrowing back to its original ratio once the reality of their situations crashes down. The second time this change occurs is gorgeous, elating and euphoric, but it carries an uneasy feeling about what these visions of bliss mean. It’s life Die desires, and one that she unquestionably deserves, but in this theoretical future it can only ever be an unattainable dream. This realisation for her is crushing for everyone involved: her only son, her only friend, and the audience.
It is, at times, a dispiriting watch, and the opening prologue is a little clumsily delivered, but Xavier Dolan balances his imaginary concept with a poignancy and beauty that’s near impossible not to fall for. As an introduction to the ludicrously young and talented Canadian director, it was an incredible one, and if any of his films are as good as Mommy then I have a lot to look forward to. Allegedly it received a 9-minute standing ovation at Cannes, and I can easily see why.