Canada (2014) Dir. Xavier Dolan
Much was made of the fact that the late great Orson Welles was just 25 when he made his directorial debut with the colossal Citizen Kane; French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan was 25 when making Mommy, his FIFTH film!
Dolan returns to the subject of the mother/son relationship, previously explored in his sensitively titled debut I Killed My Mother. The mother in question is Diane Després (Anne Dorval), a feisty forty something widow trying to make ends meet bringing up teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a violent, troubled lad with ADHD. They live in an alternate timeline were a law has been passed that allows violent and dangerous teens to be locked up without the parents’ consent.
To avoid prison after setting fire to the cafeteria at a teen institution Diane takes her son home, finding it a struggle to control him. Help comes in the unlikely form of their neighbour, shy teacher Kyla (Suzanne Clément) who after suffering a nervous breakdown is left with a stammer. She offers to home teach Steve and her calming presence does wonder for helping both Steve and Diane, while Kyla comes out of her shell.
Before we go any further, we must discuss the unusual 1:1 picture ratio Dolan used for the majority of the film. Dolan denies being pretentious, rather he wanted the audience to fully experience the intimacy of the story. This ratio equates to that of a portrait photograph and certainly when a shot features just one person, it makes for a nice tableaux; when there is two or more, the result is cramped with people shunted out of frame.
That out the way, this is another extraordinary entry into an already sublime body of work and arguably Dolan’s most mature and perceptive film to date. Even when he approaches his subjects from the most unlikely and unconventional angles, Dolan has an uncanny ability to create real characters that we either relate to or at least understand beyond a superficial level. This is bolstered by the superb performances of his cast, who breathe life into Dolan’s often mordantly honest words.
In Diane, affection nicknamed “Die”, we have someone who is a composite of the old East End matriarch and the fiery women found in Pedro Almodóvar’s films. She is very headstrong, outspoken, dresses some twenty years below her age, and curses a blue streak; she is also very affectionate, protective of her son and fights when she is right, not for the sake of it. She puts on a brave face but beneath it Steve’s condition and the various consequences are tearing her apart.
Steve is much harder to get a grip on, even with the knowledge of his condition since it is presented to us in a very in your face manner – almost Tourette’s like bad language, unable to read moods and understand simple social barriers and prone to very violent outbursts. Yet on the turn of a heel, Steve can be thoughtful, understanding and very playful, although this instances are few and far between, making sympathy for him in short supply.
Contrary to both mother and son is Kyla, imprisoned in her home after a nervous breakdown with a fussy husband and a daughter of her own. Her stutter is his biggest handicap yet being with Steve and Diane seems to help its, her impediment all but gone when with them. Kyla also brings a welcome positive influence for Steve, who seems to find himself in a situation of ostensibly having two mothers.
But it is not without some storms to be weathered – Diane’s unstable financial situation, Steve’s unpredictable behaviour and a damaging lawsuit against him for the fire at the institute are unwelcome spanners thrown into the works to push all the permutations of the relationships to breaking point.
Steve’s outbursts are both naughtily amusing or cringingly embarrassing, but the one occasion where he is justified for losing it – being mocked while singing a classical song at a karaoke bar – sees Steve being the victim of the fallout. This is the first time we really get onside with Steve and feel the full extent of what it is like being in his skin with his condition.
Aside from the fictional statute, the situations our trio are embroiled in are convincingly plausible and realistic, and even with his often abstract presentation ideas, Dolan is keen to hook us with the authenticity of his stories and films. He also likes to toy with our emotions are he does just that with debatably his most heartbreaking scenes thus far; the final act is the apogee of this, home to a stunning and gut wrenching moment that leaves one feeling cold and angry at the end of it.
It’s difficult to single out one of the leads for special praise so I won’t even try – all three delivered sublime and emotionally rich performances, suffused with requisite poignancy and nuances for their respective roles. Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément are Dolan regulars who he has stretched further and pushed for this film with stunning results.
Dorval creates a multi-layered personality behind Dian’s gritty exterior, revealing a proud and loving woman whose heart is actually bigger than her mouth. Clément takes Kyla from a nervous caterpillar to a vibrant and confident butterfly, although her best scene is when she loses it with Steve and makes him wet himself! 17 year-old Antoine-Olivier Pilon belongs to the same prodigy class as Dolan judging this involved and committed essaying of the troubled, protean teen.
Arguably the most refreshing thing about Mommy, aside from the picture ratio, is the lack of indulgence from Dolan which has haunted his previous works. The maturity and quality of the writing, the unbridled emotion of the acting and the oneiric flourishes of the presentation make this the most accomplished, engaging and immersive film from Dolan to date.
The rise of Dolan from arriviste progeny to modern day master seems complete.