Xavier Dolan is the most Freudian director since Alfred Hitchcock. Not to say, however, that the young filmmaker’s use of maternal imagery is on the same level of sexualization as the great Hitch’s works, but that his directorial vision is heavily layered - aesthetically and narratively - with mommy issues and the prevention of adulthood due to that deficiency. His debut film I Killed My Mother (the first of the titles to make these painfully obvious) involved the odd relationship between a coming-of-age man and his offbeat, but caring, mother and even Laurence Anyways, which treads from anything maternal related, still maintains density to its title character’s transition by illuminating the viewer to the effects the mother had on the person’s ultimate decisions. Dolan toys with the form: aspect ratios, allusions to past filmmakers, an MTV-esque attention to montage, and soundtrack-oriented storytelling. He’s very much a product of his generation, and while that may lead to easy attacks of the Noah Baumbach/While We’re Young level of pretension and self-absorption on behalf of the director’s age and love for excess, there’s no doubt Dolan is honest and raw in telling what it is he feels and wants to say. He’s a less brash and more sensitive version of America’s Lena Dunham.
Mommy has been met with critical acclaim with many critics citing it as their favorite film from Dolan yet. It’s not difficult to see why. His aforementioned trademark techniques are there, just as his rambling dialogue is, but Dolan sits behind the camera completely and lets other performers evoke what he’s expressing. (I’ve seen many critics shit on the guy for casting himself, but seriously have a hard time grasping how that doesn’t make his work all the more personal, but that’s just an element of redundancy considering Dolan could have played the male lead here and, while a bit miscast, wouldn’t have made the film change in quality at all.) He gets a performance out of Anne Dorval that is that rare breed in the movies; a feral energy that is undeniable, but a heart of gold underneath it all that makes every flawed, tragic element of her make an uncomfortable amount of sense. But the thing about her is that the film is about her, and it’s titled after her, and it’s through her performance that Dolan is free to roam around her with his material.
The use of aspect ratio in Mommy is inventive. Most have already heard what it does, and I’ll remain silent about it, but it’s an effective use of visual language that’s heavy-handed in idea, but used euphorically when played out in context of the film itself. By shooting the film in a square-shaped box that’s a few inches away from being iPhone ratio, there’s a surprising amount of emotion to be found, and the images are still visually arresting in such a restrained scope. The closeness to a character’s face, the weight of a certain situation of violence pressuring in on those faces, and even the almost Sirkian drops that flow in the wind as Dolan utilizes reflections within other squares and rectangles to tell us more. Take a scene, for example, where the son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is on a bed staring at a photograph of his father. Dolan pans the camera downwards so that we see nothing but the framed image, but the boy’s reflection on the glass, so that we can see both at the same time and realize the emotional resonance within one shot. Or when the mother (Dorval) is staring out of a laundry room window at her neighbor (Suzanne Clement, brilliant as expected here) for the first time and they share a quiet, if heavily orchestrated moment of illumination. Or when, in the film’s final scenes, the boy looks into the rearview mirror of a car to gather someone’s reaction to what is about to happen to him, while the passenger’s rain-dripped window shows the terror that is slowly approaching. It’s easy to get caught up in praising Mommy for it’s big “awe” moments, but rewatching scenes makes you realize how much information Dolan gets across within single frames. It’s all leading up to a final scene that involves, well, you know… a window.
“We still love each other, right?” the son asks his mom at one point in the film. And her response is exactly what Mommy is about, and what makes it an uneasy character study to analyze. When the mother sits in her final scene, in her bedroom, allowing for her strong guard to fall, it’s a wrecking moment that the film earns, even if the viewer does or doesn’t accept her decision. For a director so grounded in the same melodrama-cum-realist worlds of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder or a Douglas Sirk, it’s a moment of revelation that abandons almost all for an untainted couple of minutes in the destruction of a woman who has spent a life destructing herself and holding herself in contempt, denial, and guilt for all that has happened to her and those around her. For the son, it’s just as so, if not even worse.
Approaching some of the same challenging themes as Louis Malle in his masterpiece Murmur of the Heart, Dolan underscores the complicating factors of this relationship and further shows his Freudian understandings. When the mother and son dance in the kitchen to Celine Dion, the son puts on eyeliner and black nail polish and succumbs to a type of performance art as he grabs his own mother’s breasts with the presence of a stranger not once blocking him into shame. It’s not even that the act is sexual, considering the foundation of the scene and what it means to both characters - it’s that it’s about naivety and how not easily understood that all is to both parties. It says something that the neighbor (the stranger, here) stays with the family and bonds with them after this moment. Because, ironically, she’s the only one who can play voyeur to it all and see the destruction taking place. And for a moment - for a single moment - she helped them find a stable ground before it all lost balance once again.
Mommy will become a zeitgeist of the decade. It captures the socioeconomics of its location and the way that has made an effect on its characters. It captures the musical landscape of this time period. It’s a film that’s very much 2014 in tone. But it’s in the subtext of the characters and what they go through - and what Dolan does cinematically to mesh the style of his film with the substance of the story - that is going to staple it as being one that is multigenerational. “We still love each other, right?” the son asks. And even with so much shit in their lives, his mommy comforts him: “That’s what we’re best at, buddy.”