Review: Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy”

mommyXavier Dolan has a message for his detractors: “Eat my shorts.”

Literally, it’s right there in the opening frame of the 25-year-old French-Canadian’s new film, Mommy: a close-up on a teenage boy’s shiny pair of boxers, hanging in the breeze on a suburban Quebec clothesline and squarely, lovingly, in the audience’s face. (He could be airing out his dirty laundry, but hey.) Dolan’s juvenile greeting is both appropriate and hardly unexpected, coming from a filmmaker whose latest emotional tornado finds the time for masturbation jokes, Home Alone shout-outs, and cheesy-great ’90s music cues—filmed, for the most part, in a brazen 1:1 aspect ratio that’s sure to infuriate a few critics. Notoriously tied for the Cannes Jury prize with Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Mommy might not possess the accumulated cinematic brio of the master (what does?), yet it’s arguably just as vital on the other end of the career spectrum; alive with thrilling potential, Dolan’s film is by turns unruly, elegant, and rousing in its emotional panorama, and represents the best indication yet that his filmmaking skills are aligning with his electric talent. Love or loathe him, it’s difficult not to be dazzled.

Locating events in a quasi-near future where parents can turn over problem children to state psychiatric purgatory, Mommy explores—or rather, turns inside out and then some—the tumultuous relationship between Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pinon), an unpredictable, semi-medicated brat out of hell, and his resilient single mother Diane (Anne Dorval), a widowed, newly unemployed 46-year-old whose suffering at the hands of her son’s emotional masochism is matched only by her unerring love for him. It isn’t the first time Dolan’s made a film all about his mother, of course (nor put the valiant Dorval through the ringer), yet unlike the more personal, fledgling I Killed My Mother, Mommy paints with a bolder, brassier palette; by amplifying the adolescent angst of that film, refining the beautiful bluster of Laurence Anyways, and one-upping the formal playfulness he experimented with in Tom At the Farm (13), Dolan has realized the perfect confection of his cinema to date.

It’s quite a ride, too. Mommy is a painful, psychologically ravaged film, yet assembled with such intoxicating vigor—and passages of pure, if deceptive joy—that it becomes strangely life-affirming. Experiencing Diane and Steve’s frayed-nerve war of attrition as they negotiate counselors, encroaching poverty, and shocking bursts of violence is a genuine rollercoaster in the best sense, with unexpected shifts in tonal register de rigueur and grace notes materializing in the ugliest of moments. The film dips and crescendos with a scary manic-depressive rhythm, entertaining unhinged jubilance, snake-pit despair, and medicated in-betweens that are uncannily in sync with its characters. Dolan’s grasp of the material is sensational, in all meanings of the word. Per Laurence, it’s ear-poundingly loud and melodramatic, with every emotional beat, though played for realism, cranked up and run through a heightened lens, the claustrophobic square frame serving as a skewed Instagram dispatch from the psych ward. Such aspect-ratio japery will be understandably dismissed as a gimmick by some, with its much-discussed, fleeting trips into widescreen, but Dolan’s game feels more assured here—the 1.85:1 blips function as illusionary highs, even as some of the music choices walk the fine line between droll and corny (“Wonderwall”—it’s an Oasis, geddit?)

As Diane and Steve, Dorval and Pinon are knockouts, integral to Dolan’s ambition. Costume designed to resemble an aging Britney fan from the early 2000s—all distressed boot cut jeans, tattoos, and highlighted hair—Dorval’s Diane is a marvel, brilliantly conveying a woman compelled to cling to a youthful ideal of quotidian glam to survive, signing her name “d.i.e.” with a love-heart accent exactly like the petulant girl who might have given birth such an offspring. Pinon’s livewire performance, meanwhile, is remarkably controlled given its wild range, engendering disgust and deep empathy in equal measure. Seeing Steve hurl racial epithets at a cab driver isn’t pleasant, nor is it inaccurate: Pinon puts the contradictions of the teenage male out there warts and all, a depiction that becomes especially fascinating in the tension between Steve’s received masculine destiny and the feminine nurturing to which he’s accustomed. Dolan understands this, juxtaposing scenes of Steve’s vicious braggadocio with tender respite—one moment he’s threatening violence, the next wearing eyeliner and pirouetting to Celine Dion for his mother. Factoring in to this unusual sexual identity is the bond that mother and son form with Suzanne Clément’s meek neighbor, who’s liberated from her husband’s subjugation to become a kind of second mother to Steve, and a source—in Dolan’s world, at least—of both unreserved affection and ultimate betrayal. (It will come as no surprise that Clément, who should have won every award for her turn in Laurence Anyways, is a match in every respect for her co-stars here.)

Dolan directs his players’ dance like a boxing match and a ballet, with shocking bouts of ill-spirited pugilism offset but the enduring eeriness of the maternal bond. The symbiosis comes to a head in one confrontational scene that’ll not be easily wrenched from memory; spinning on a dime in a precarious emotional key, suffice it to say that Steve effectively plays a teenage Jack Torrance and the moment is charged with genuinely unnerving terror. It’s par for the course, though, in a film that goes from threatening to bust into a musical in a mall parking lot or staging a shopping cart chase like a scene from The Blues Brothers to plunging into A Clockwork Orange-style intimations of state-sanctioned torture—there’s a scene in the back stretch, for example, that’s harder to watch than anything since David was dumped in the woods in A.I. It’s precisely this willingness on Dolan’s part to engage in the full emotional spectrum that makes the film so satisfying, rough edges and all. If he inevitably overreaches—the film perhaps labors its ending—then it’s not for a surfeit of rich material. One could argue, say, that Mommy’s second widescreen fantasy overcooks, but who’d want to be denied a second of its cruel Twilight Zone life-insurance-ad delusion?

As ever, Dolan’s strongest suit is his intuitive understanding of his female characters. It might be premature to draw a direct line, but there are hints of Fassbinder and Almodóvar in his approach, certainly in the rich interior lives of the characters and—not insignificantly—the way in which the character’s style, make-up and gesture reflects their mental vicissitudes. And in a world increasingly bemoaned for a lack of good roles for actresses, and older ones in particular, Dolan—whose female leads are 54 and 45, and at the peak of their form—is looking like an essential voice.

Where he goes from here, frankly, is pretty exciting.

Originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

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