The fifth feature from talented young filmmaker and Cannes favorite Xavier Dolan is his best-executed work, streamlined of the visual pyrotechnics that dress up this study of the complexly fierce love between mother and son. Dolan’s previous features had him compared to many great filmmakers and films, most of which he claims never to have seen. This time, Mommy does not recall other auteurs so much as confirm Dolan as one.
That Diane Depres’ (Anne Dorval) entire life hinges on a newly instated Canadian law pertaining to child guardianship and wards of the state as the wordy preface makes clear does not necessarily make her story any less compelling or more confusing without knowledge of the legal circumstance. Widowed single-mother Diane aggressively struts down a suburban street (she cannot afford a car) like its her catwalk, dressed in something like rebel-chic more readily seen on tweens. Better known as “Die,” she has not yet outgrown her mall rat clothes or adolescent tendencies, and is often as impulsive as her 15-year-old son. She loses her job when her male boss is replaced by a woman less susceptible to her feminine wile, but Diane is not easily broken. She finds a way to make it work, even with the gargantuan task of homeschooling Steve. Anne Dorval is a tour de force as a flirting, fighting whirlwind, the antithesis of the mother and woman, overburdened and glacial, that she portrayed in Dolan’s first feature I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma Mère). She grapples with her love for Steve, newly deinstitutionalized after an incident (not accident) involving a microwave fire. Her lack of surprise is understandable when he bursts onto the screen in a profanity-laden tizzy via the director’s characteristic shaky handheld shots, suitable here, and balanced by his preferred slow-motion sequences.
The film is aggressively stylized and replete with capital P pop music. On the opposite end of the spectrum as Jim Jarmusch, Dolan subscribes to the theory of choosing a song to punctuate the mood and emotion of the characters, and the very popular (and culturati-maligned) songs seem to work to this effect and without irony.
Mommy is filmed in classic 1:1, a blatant square seen in 120 film (6x6cm) of classic photographers or nostalgists and better evoked now through Instagram, known for flaunting bite-sized details of quotidian life, but there is little glamour in the lives of Die, Kyla, and Steve. Mother and son in I Killed My Mother managed to lived comfortably, where the Depres mother and son struggle to stay afloat. Never does Dolan resort to what he disparagingly calls “poverty porn” common in movies today, as he refuses to exploit the hardships of his underprivileged characters. They are brave individuals, constantly joking and never wallowing. Dolan manages to mask the aspect ratio’s crudeness by relying on tight close-ups, often to his advantage given the strengths of the actors. The confined viewfinder reflects appropriately the limited viewpoints and options of the characters as they crowd the airless screen space, and it is a true thrill when they escape it, if only for moment as they do in one of the year’s most inspired movie moments.