MommyApril 11, 2015
Mommy is every mother’s horror movie. The story begins with a single mum crashing her car while on the way to collect a son who is being expelled from a special needs school. He has, apparently, set fire to a kitchen and put another boy in hospital. When the son arrives on the scene, ecstatic at being set free, her troubles begin.
This is the fifth feature by the precocious French Canadian filmmaker, Xavier Dolan, who turns 26 this year. It is a belated companion piece to his award-wining debut, I Killed My Mother, made when he was only 20. In that earlier film Ann Dorval played a wildly unsympathetic parent. This time we see the world largely from the mother’s point of view as she struggles to cope with an overgrown, agitated son always on the verge of some violent outburst.
As the lights go down an opening title tells us this film is set in a fictional Canada of the near future, which has passed a law allowing parents to surrender dysfunctional children to the care of the state. This thought will remain in the back of our minds throughout the story, providing a potential escape clause for the harassed mother.
That mother, Diana ‘Die’ Després, is no angel. She drinks and swears and smokes, dressing in a way that signals an unwillingness to accept the fact of middle age. Since her husband died she has scraped together a living from magazine work and translations. She is a good-time girl whose opportunities have been ruined by widowhood and motherhood. In self-defence she has developed a snarling attitude towards the world.
The 15-year-old son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), is more than a match for anything his mother can summon up. Hyperactive, loud, foul-mouthed and oversexed, he barely recognises the boundaries between public and private. He treats his mother as if she were his girlfriend, and is prone to bouts of jealousy. He calls a taxi driver a nigger, and explodes at the merest provocation. In one scene he loses control and almost strangles Die.
Help arrives unexpectedly from the woman who lives across the street. Kyla (Suzanne Clément) is a school teacher “on sabbatical” who speaks with a nervous stutter. She lives with her husband and daughter in a still, silent household. This could never be said for Die and Steve, who are the loudest people on the block. While Die goes job-hunting, Kyla undertakes the job of home-schooling Steve. This means dealing with his non-existent attention span, his sexual advances and incipient violence. The lessons reach a crisis in one frantic scene in which Kyla has to re-assert her control.
Mommy is a film that is always, literally, in your face. The dialogue is belted out in a Quebecois dialect barely recognisable as French. Dolan has written the English subtitles himself, presumably wanting to make sure the vulgarisms and expletives are not lost in translation.
His most daring decision was to shoot in a 1:1 ratio, enclosing the action in a square format that seems to squeeze the characters together in a box. The claustrophobia is only relieved when Steve has a moment of pure happiness on his skateboard and the frame opens up audaciously to accommodate this feeling.
There can be no doubting the love that exists between mother and son, but their relationship is a war of attrition. Living with Steve is a daily assault on the senses, as he loves to play a compilation his father left him, at full volume. The film is interspersed with songs by artists such as Oasis, Counting Crows, Dido and Celine Dion. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious messages in the choice of tunes, unless Dido’s White Flag may be seen to represent Die’s ultimate temptation.
It probably requires a youthful director to use music in such an aggressive manner. At times it allows the characters to release their pent-up emotions, at others it suggests Steve’s propensity to live in his own head. As viewers we keep imagining how loud and aggravating it must be for the neighbours. It’s hard enough to watch events unfold on screen.
The three leads put in wholehearted, physical performances. Pilon’s Steve manages to be both menacing and vulnerable, while Dorval’s Die has a streak of selfishness that battles with her maternal instincts. Perhaps the most complex personality is Clément’s Kyla, whose desire to become the third part of a triangle with the volatile Steve and Die, seems incomprehensible. She harbours a secret that would explain her speech problem, and the reason she is now out of a job, but no-one is being taken into her confidence. Kyla feels alienated in her own home, as if carrying some burden of anxiety or shame. Visiting the madhouse across the street offers a mysterious respite.
There is no respite for the audience. In a film in which the emotional engagements are never less than volcanic the drama is played out to the very end. Mommy is a passion play of love, violence, guilt and shame that bars access to the ‘happily ever after’ option.
Written & directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard, Alexandre Goyette, Michèle Lituac
Canada, rated MA15+, 134 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th April, 2015.