Dolan Directs: Mommy (2014)

“A woman doesn’t wake up one morning not loving her son.”

When I first saw this film on its release, I remember saying that although I liked it and was glad I’d seen it, it was very shouty and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see it again.

Well that was my instant reaction to the film, but reflecting on it later on drew me to the conclusion that I would definitely watch it again, and it ended up being my second best film of that year.

Revisiting the mother/son dynamic, Xavier Dolan casts Antoine Olivier Pilon (previously seen in the music video for College Boy) as Steve, a teenager with ADHD who has just been excluded from the institution in which he was staying and has been returned home to his widowed mother (Anne Dorval). His condition and her lack of work lead to very difficult situations at home, until a neighbour (Suzanne Clément) intervenes and becomes a balance between the two. She is struggling herself with a speech disorder which is preventing her from continuing her career as a teacher. We’re not exactly sure why she is suffering, but we get hints which are never confirmed.

Perhaps the most striking element of the movie is the use of aspect ratio. The majority of the film screens in 1:1 aspect ration, meaning that the screen image is square. This has the effect of being extremely intimate and also claustrophobic when focussing on the characters. Dolan uses this to great advantage when illustrating an unusual period of joy and happiness in the lives of the three, with a real sense of breaking free as the image widens. This lasts for precisely 3 minutes, until reality bites and the world begins to close in again. There’s also another, quite extraordinary, heartbreaking scene towards the end which truly shows the depth of love and hope that a mother holds for her son.

André Turpin again does the cinematography, and apart from the aspect ratio, the other obvious thing is that the colour palette is predominantly yellow. I haven’t yet been able to work out what the yellow is supposed to mean, but it is prevalent. As is the sense of smell. Characters often are seen smelling fabric, food or fruit, or commenting on how nicely other people smell. I think smell is the sense most closely connected with memory, and reference is made to how Steve’s behaviour only became challenging after his father died – it’s as if each character is attempting to get back to a time before that, when things weren’t so bad.

Anne Dorval gives an outstanding performance as Mommy Diane – taking everything life throws at her and retaining a sliver of hope throughout. Suzanne Clément is enthralling as the neighbour who finds purpose again in helping the mother and son across the road. And Antoine Olivier Pilon is an absolute force of nature as Steve.

It’s possibly Dolan’s most mature film to date, and one in which he officially cements Céline Dion as “a national treasure” of Canada.

And for those keeping track – tea in a china cup was sighted!

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