BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: People who know Xavier Dolan know what they’re walking into when they buy a ticket for Mommy. While he has a loyal fanbase that seems to grow more passionate about him by each film, some don’t like him at all. This is my first of his films and I can immediately see the case for both sides. However, as Mommy is being called his most mature work yet, I take pause to imagine how infantile his previous films are as this has its moments of worrisome juvenility, though the ‘mature’ moments have a gutsy weight. At only 25 years old and on his 5th film in as many years, there’s a cathartic energy to the way he approaches cinema that is quite refreshing to see. He throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks. Some of it does, but I regret to say, much of it doesn’t, and what falls off drags the film down.
Frequent headliner for Dolan’s previous films and having starred in 4 of the 5, Mommy stars Anne Dorval as the titular character Diane ‘Die’ Despres, in a whirlwind performance of tantalizing vigor and sensitivity. She’s a widowed single mother who takes her thuggish son Steve, played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon, back home after his time runs out at a delinquent center due to an incident where he caused another boy to be seriously burned. Arguments in their house always escalate to the point of violence, but they find solace in bonding with their stuttering but kind-hearted (with a lioness bouncing inside) neighbor Kyla, enticingly played by Suzanne Clement, who begins to tutor Steve so he can have the potential for a future.
Immediately you can feel Dolan’s hand ready to sculpt the film beyond reason. It begins as an unnecessary fantasy set next year with a fictional law to serve the plot. Perhaps it needs this disconnection from reality. It’s wired with high-strung melodrama that escalates outrageously. Granted, that is the point of the film, that a little spark can ignite a forest fire, but it crosses a line where it ceases to be involving or convincing, and nor is it darkly comical. At first it’s difficult to invest in the film, the characters are so unlikeable and unsympathetic, victims of their own tempers and ignorance. Dorval wins you over handedly, channeling Marisa Tomei better than Tomei herself. She’s grounded enough to make the drama work. However, Pilon overdoes the irritation to the point where you sincerely don’t wish him to succeed and that’s a major problem with the performance and the way Dolan treats him. It’s unbearably obnoxious.
But when it’s finally toned down in the tense calms before or after the storm, it’s really great. It’s thoroughly embroiling, enrapturing and heart-breaking drama, or a complete joy depending on the scene. That’s the flipside of a film that’s heightened to 11 on either end of the scale. It was constantly losing me and winning me back. Eventually, the losses were weaker and the wins were stronger. Sometimes the stylistic indulgences were enjoyable and added to the tone. Otherwise they disrupt the flow of the film entirely, with the use of slow motion, out of focus shots and unnecessary interludes of music videos. Those of which were poorly chosen iconic tracks that I can’t tell whether Dolan actually knows how done to death and unsalvageable the Dido and Oasis songs are for instance. He exercises zero restraint – but he does not care. There’s somewhat of a charm to his contrarianism.
What’s most fascinating about the film and what particularly sets it apart given the familiarity of this type of melodrama is the aspect ratio. It’s boxed in at an unusual 1:1, imprisoning the characters so they feel crushed by the weight of the stresses of their personalities and consequences of their actions. It occasionally breaks free of it when hope floods back into their lives. It’s an incredibly expressive way to use the space of a frame, much more emotional than the intellectual way Wes Anderson did it this year for The Grand Budapest Hotel. As such with a melodrama, the cinematography is vibrant with alluring colour, making good use of that voyeuristic box we watch the story from. Fortunately, when Mommy hits the sweet spot, it’s utterly overwhelming. Dorval is the only consistent aspect in an unashamedly bloated, indulgent and messy film. It could be too polarizing to be a serious contender for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but a nomination remains to be seen.