“Loving someone won’t save them.”
This quote sets the tone for French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s fifth film, Mommy, a story that focuses on the ferocity of a mother’s love for her tearaway son, who truly embodies the “enfant terrible” archetype. The co-winner of the prestigious 2014 Cannes Film Award, Mommy focuses on Diane ‘Die’ Després, played by Anne Dorval in her fourth turn in a Dolan film – a widowed single mother, who has been struggling to raise the bright but unpredictable Steve, played by Antoine Oliver-Pilon in his first major role. The film begins with foreboding titles, which inform us that within the film’s fictionalised depiction of Canada, a law has passed that allows parents to send their children into state care, bypassing legal processes. Although the film incorporates themes of love, hope and starting anew, this message looms like an ominous dark cloud, shadowing the sides of the unusual and portrait-like 1:1 aspect ratio.
The plot is set in motion when Die has to collect Steve from an institution for troubled children, which she sent him to after his father passed away, and his ADHD worsened to the point where she could no longer control him; Steve has been expelled from school after setting fire to the cafeteria and severely injuring a classmate. Die is warned by a cynical support worker that love cannot save her son, to which Die replies that sceptics will be proven wrong. Steve assures his mother “We’re a team” once they’re home, cementing the bond between them. However, their tempestuous relationship unravels and their intense love for one another results in violent altercations and occasionally incestuous overtones. It is only the hesitant involvement of shy and stuttering neighbour Kyla that helps to soothe, and potentially save, both of them.
There is an intensely personal feel to the film, heightened by the 1:1 aspect ratio. The viewer is drawn into the events as they transpire, creating a sense of intimacy and closeness to the characters. This also doubles as voyeuristic at times, as if we are observing these realistic situations through a keyhole, such as when Steve kisses Die in the darkness, or as the camera tracks slowly out from Die, Steve and Kyla dancing together. The film is confidently directed, the artistic visuals almost effortless as every shot is beautifully filmed and accentuated by mood-fitting colours. Dolan is also unafraid to assert stylistic techniques, with a particularly memorable dream sequence involving blurred faces that results in one of the most poignant and sobering moments in the film.
His creativity with the aspect ratio hits its peak in the masterfully executed moment where Steve reaches out and pulls it into full screen, racing down the road on his skateboard with Die and Kyla in tow. It tugs on the heartstrings of the viewer, who still clings to the hope that all can end well for these dysfunctional and brutally real characters. The slow lingering shots, borrowed from French cinema, are perhaps indulgent at points – a mark on the film’s long runtime. Also, although they do not detract from the visually stunning montages, it is rather jarring to have well-known songs such as Dido’s “White Flag” and Oasis’ rather overused “Wonderwall” on the soundtrack.
Mommy is a dark, turbulent ride of a film which succeeds in absorbing the viewer into its universe, forcing us to bear witness to raw emotions which will put one on the edge of their seat and occasionally hit too close to home. The last act is particularly hard to watch, leaving the viewer to question the notions of freedom and safety, and is one of the few films where a sunrise in a window will cause a freefall in one’s heart.