There are things wrong — both narratively and structurally — with twenty-five-year-old Québécois enfant terrible and writer/director, Xavier Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning melodrama, Mommy, and it isn’t insubstantial or injudicious or petty to catalogue them, but it would be myopic.
As I experienced the full kinetic, high-octane assault of Dolan’s revelrous, near impressionistically-orchestrated vision, I came to discern that no amount of measured and exacting critical evaluation would satisfactorily accommodate the sheer ambition, dramatic impact, emotional and psychological generosity, gorgeousness and raw feeling that this film engenders in its viewers. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with erupted into applause.
Mommy is therefore almost impossible to judge or reduce or synopsise to the sum of its parts, if only because it succeeds organically and intuitively as a singular vision of aesthetic energy and combustion — to encapsulate or abbreviate its affect, is to assume an injustice against it. This is a work which, albeit embracing of clumsy melodramatic convention and a storytelling high-concept which initially feels telescoped and contrived, reaffirms that maxim of artistic discovery: the shock of the new.
Dolan’s film is brilliant, and Dolan’s film is sui generis: there’s nothing else like it, which is why it self-assuredly inveigles its way into the soft and trembling architecture of the heart. Imagine Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) as re-engineered by early-career Iñárritu or Jacques Audiard, and you are halfway there. This is a film to invite rapture, and it won’t surprise me if there are just as many detractors as there are advocates (why the lurching running time or the three discrete endings?), just as much repudiation or disengaged dismissal as there is elated admiration and delight. Such a polarising reaction is inherently in keeping with Dolan’s approach — there are no small moments in life, only opportunities to acquire the psychological artillery necessary for the big ones — and individuals of a colder or more cynical constitution might find Dolan’s scope either false or shrill. There’s certainly cause to accuse Mommy of being histrionic or naïvely capacious, of striving to immortalise a vulnerable, agitated and hormonally imbalanced fifteen-year-old teenager’s growing pains as constituting the grand human gesture — such an interpretation would not be untenable, but it would be asynchronous with the volatile interiority of an actual teenage experience rooted in pain and alienation.
The way Dolan shoots it is the way it feels: a combative fifteen-year-old boy (the unselfconscious and electric Antoine-Olivier Pilon), imposed on by a system of familial bureaucracy which seeks to install an ethical accountability into its young unruly charges by way of force, does feel “free” in the company of those who don’t punitively seek to dominate him. He does feel like dancing to Celine Dion in eyeshadow and a wifebeater singlet in front of his mother and her newly-embraced neighbourhood friend. He does feel like thrashing a supermarket shopping trolley with transcendental delinquent appetite. He does feel like punching a wall, mythologising his recently-deceased father, normalising marijuana use around his family, trading flirtations with people outside his reach, raging against the machine.
What Dolan does is to inhabit this worldview and emotionalise it: form follows function. There are whole sequences in Mommy which are better than anything of comparable merit that I can recall in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. There are whole sequences in Mommy which capture the symphonic quality of youthful self-actualisation less guilefully than writer/director Zach Braff managed to achieve in Garden State. There are whole sequences in Mommy which operate with an internally-consistent cinematic logic more hyperrealistic or oneiric than similar examples in the films of Hal Ashby. Above all, Mommy is operatic with the stuff of life. It elevates deeply-felt dramatic conflict to a language of sublime, sinuous cinematography and music and woozy hues.
The women in the picture — Suzanne Clément as Kayla and Anne Dorval as “Die” Després — are marvels to behold. Clément is warm and reserved and effusive and nuanced and tender. Dorval is a rock: her performance is almost mythopoeic. It is unshakeable. She holds the camera like a painted gaze holds a gallery spectator. She is so bold, so big, so brave in her efforts to humanise Die, that Dorval carves out a place in this film, and in Dolan’s growing canon of works, as the heart of his method. Write the right role, and watch it wrestle through the screen until even the film’s own ratio format is too narrowly-devised to contain her soaring.