Mommie Dearest

One of my biggest immediate observations is how Antoine-Olivier Pilon’s hairstyle in Xavier Dolan’s 2014 Cannes Jury Prize winner Mommy makes him kind of look like Justin Bieber to me. I wondered if this was a deliberate choice to make his character, Steve Depres, a recent release from a juvenile psychiatric hospital, a little bit more dislikable.

It seems like I’m reading a bit too much into that mere hairstyle, but the truth is that a lot of Mommy telegraphs itself – from the 1:1 aspect ratio selected to the instantly recognizable soundtrack of popular music – so much as a film that I certainly want to believe that there is more underneath to dig and read. As it maybe turns out, there kind of is.

For the past few years, child star-turned-director Xavier Dolan has become another golden boy for Cannes (in the absence not-really-a-Nazi-but-not-really-a-genius-either Lars von Trier), proving to be inspired by all sorts of director’s styles – Heartbeats calls back on Wong Kar-wai, Laurence Anyways on Stanley Kubrick -, ambitious both in versatility and visual stylizations, and prolific… by his current age of 25, the dude has made five features. The fifth is what we’re on about.

The other major thing about Dolan is how much he wears his personal heart on his sleeve. His first film, I Killed My Mother, was confessed as being semi-autobiographical and, given how its primary themes are Mommy Issues and Homosexuality (Dolan is openly gay and you probably would have figured that out just by watching one film of his – which I do recommend you do, since all of them exempting Tom at the Farm and Mommy are on Netflix), it appears that those two things impact his life so much that pretty much every film he made since has had one or both of those themes announced loudly.

You can probably guess which the hell Mommy focuses more on (though there is just a hint of the other one too).

But in actually tangible literal matters, Mommy‘s focus is on the relationship between Die (Anne Dorval) and her volatile 17-year-old son Stevie (Pilon). When the film begins, Stevie is being picked up out of the juvenile home Die originally dropped him in as a youth. The reason for this sudden ejection is due to Stevie having set another resident on fire (who lives) and it’s flat-out dropped that is not the first violent incident Stevie has had but it is the most severe yet.

A few minutes with aged-yet-sultry Die and, while she is obviously a bit more functional than her erratic and unrestrained son, it’s very clear where Stevie got his vulgarity, lack of foresight, and confrontational attitude. At once, it becomes clear that the two of them both deserve each other and yet are the worst things that could possibly happen to each other. From the beginning of Stevie’s return into his mother’s life, sparks fly around between light banter of a frankly adult manner and then suddenly a shockingly violent moment of flying glass, fists flying, and hiding in closets.

At the end of this heavy and frightening confrontation, the injured Stevie gets himself in the care of their neighbor (whom it seems Die has been eying) the shy and reserved Kyla and suddenly these three enter a friendship together that gives practically everyone involved a bit more fresh air to feel involved…

Everybody feels a bit more free…

But all the while, that one moment of violence from Stevie lingers in the memory and threatens to erupt once more. And then more problems come in the frame that make this situation turn a bit more asphyxiating for Die and Stevie, who were – for maybe the first time since Die’s husband/Stevie’s father died – gaining peace of mind.

Anyway, the mommy issues that Mommy talks through are pretty much transparent and the sole thematic anchor it seems to have as a film that goes beyond the idea of self and “being an island”. But this comes again from how Mommy telegraphs itself and the two most apparent ways that it goes ahead with doing that.

If you’ve heard anything about Mommy, you’ve heard about its aspect ratio. It’s an unusual one, particularly if you’re only used to Hollywood blockbusters in 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. You’ll be used to those horizontal frames. Mommy is 1:1. That’s an absolute square, but compared to the regular preferences of aspect ratio, that feels less like a square and more like a vertical camera phone video. Those black gaps looking bigger than they actually are. And it helps emotionally. You don’t need to be too literate to figure out that this unusual shape is in fact to compress all of the heavy emotions that Dorval and Pilon carry in their performances (especially Dorval who shines out most – then again, the film sort of gives her more to work than Pilon, as the script seems to at times try to craft Stevie as this unstoppable yet one-note force of rage) as well as to add to a form of visual claustrophobia for the audience to share Die and Stevie’s overwhelmed state at all the madness around their own mad selves. It also lends for the two of the more memorable visual moments of the film where it gives itself in to a self-awareness of its composition – both of them the most famous scenes of the film as far as I know – but not quite as impactful to me as its shocking and sobering, yet in retrospect, inevitable finale. I mean, 25th Hour did it first, but hell if Mommy didn’t do it so much better, with its lack of romanticism and harsh insistence that we stay and watch the whole ordeal.

Unfortunately, the other manner in which it telegraphs itself obviously is not as forgivable. The film’s soundtrack is made up of popular music from the 90s onward like “Wonderwall” and “Born to Die” that, while I do like those songs on their own merits, the lyrics themselves start to spell out literally what emotions and thoughts the characters are meant to be believed to have and so it comes off as insultingly manipulative and very unconfident in both its visual storytelling and its actors themselves. It’s a real turn-off.

Still overall, Mommy has proven to be another impressive bit of work from a filmmaker who is constantly in the mood to try bold new things, very much deserving of the Jury Prize it shared with Goodbye to Language at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Andre Turpin and Dolan have taken cares to create very stunning and beautiful Lubezki-esque visualizations (although there are moments in the film where they apparently don’t seem to be as aware of the aspect ratio as they should be and we’re going “what the fuck are you trying to show us?”), Dolan has written yet another empathetic plea for flawed human beings who need to be heard, directed the product to come as way too larger-than-life for us to be able to sit through without exploding like Stevie and… oh fuck, did anybody else just realize what that meme that kid’s last name is?

Fuck, now that’s going to be on my mind for the rest of the week.

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