To many of us, Xavier Dolan is one of the greats. Impossibly young and in possession of a churning raw talent matched with a masterful control over a unique aesthetic, he is undeniable. His 2010 sophomore effort Heartbeats and its ‘love beyond reason’ high stylistic virtuosity cemented Dolan as not just the next big thing, but a current contender to be watched. Mommy is a good film. Dolan has taken a place within our cultural imaginary as someone distinctly better than the rest, and so the promise of what Mommy could have been is ultimately its downfall.
That is not to say that Mommy isn’t an impressive, emotionally charged feature. Set in Canada in 2015, where a law has been passed that states that problem children can be handed over to the state without legal process, we follow the dynamic, foul mouthed and trashy but smart as hell Diane Després (Anne Dorval) deal with her son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who is as likeable and charming as he is dangerous. The performances in the film ultimately absolve most of its indiscretions. Anne Dorval is a revelation. She has played a mother in three of Dolan’s films. First, in his semi-autobiographical directorial debut I Killed My Mother in which she played the mother of Dolan’s own character. She plays Nicolas’ mother Desiree in Heartbeats and here she is again, playing what seems to be a role intended only for her. Pilon’s performance is perhaps the greatest of the film. At only 17, his ability to portray a character that flows, even within a single close up, between dangerously aggressive to vulgar and obnoxious but ultimately foiled by a charm and charisma that makes us an audience understand why his mother is so besotted with him. It is a difficult line to ride and one that Pilon, at such a young age, rides so successfully.
Mommy is a break away from the high aesthetic of Dolan’s previous efforts. Where Heartbeats was a film struck with a colourful, meticulous aesthetic, Dolan steps away from what is simply seen and revealed and instead the defining feature of Mommy is its soaring emotional terrain. Where Heartbeats was lauded for its cool music, the soundtrack of Mommy more or less begins with the blasting of ‘White Flag’ by Dido – a song that contains no aesthetic capital whatsoever, but a song that easily impacts emotionally. The introduction of the character of Kyla, a quiet neighbour, gives way to some of the more uplifting moments in the film and the 90’s pop hits that come with them feel intentional despite their absurdity 1
The emotionality of the film is revealed and managed through its stylistic decisions, which, while less overt than in Dolan’s previous work, are present in (for example) in the way Dolan augments the aspect ratio throughout the film; beginning in what feels an initially bizarre 1:1, Dolan uses a serious of variations to enhance feelings of intimacy or constriction or even having Steve push the frame of film himself, opening up to widescreen, in a moment of happiness. It is an interesting technique, but a jarring one that can feel cheap at times. This slight feeling of discomfort, not intentionally caused by the film, but instead a result of some of the less coherent filmic choices by Dolan really starts to creep in by the second half of the film.
The temporality of the film is entirely convoluted. We know the film is set in Canada in 2015 – in the really not so distant future – but the clothes and music taste of the characters all feel resolutely late 90’s, with Diane even crimping her hair at one point. It feels like Dolan is trying to say something with this, but no one can quite figure out what. This feeling of undecipherability is present throughout the film and acts to both engage and excite – such as with the unresolved mystery of Kyla’s backstory – but by the end of the film, leaves us unsatisfied. The first half of the film is littered with moments that slap you in the face with the reminder of what cinema is capable of with someone like Dolan in charge. Moments that are funny or excruciating or stylistically innovative, but the promise that we are in proximity to something that could be one the greatest new films, means we are let down all the more by a second half that feels like it ends three or four times. Dolan just doesn’t get away with it. His explicit cinematic flair and, frankly, his unavoidable attachment to French cinema by way of language alone, means that he is an easy target for complaints of indulgency. Where previously he has always proven himself worthy of his bold objectives, he doesn’t quite get away with the length of Mommy. It is not that it is a bad film. It’s that it is filled with the promise of greatness and it leaves us wondering what could have been.
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