There’s no stopping Xavier Dolan. Where many other filmmakers flit from one genre to the next, masking inconsistency with the desire to experiment, the 25-year old Québécois supremely talented, young prodigy of cinema has settled into his own groove, dismissing his detractors with no-nonsense put-downs and inexorably honing his own artistic voice. This is very much palpable in his fifth feature, which premiered in the Official Competition strand to thrilling reception, where Dolan revisits the thematic preoccupations of his film debut and extends the context further with such artistic audacity and show-stopping, blitzkrieg emotions. Mommy is, basically, How I Killed My Mother 2.0, but far more ebullient, vibrant, hard-hitting and ten times more heartbreaking. After the genre detour of his previous feature, the psychodrama Tom at the Farm (nonetheless superb and remarkably disciplined as any Hitchcock film), you’d probably accuse Dolan of relapsing into his comfort zone, but every frame, every nuance and breathtaking cinematic coup present here will contend against those claims.
Dolan has already stuck a middle-finger to conventions, but this might be his most exhilarating and audacious tour-de-force, employing a 1:1 aspect ratio (practically the perfect Instagram square) to beautiful purpose. He compresses the faces of his characters into the limited space, as though they’re trapped in this constricted life. Happiness mostly lies beyond the frame – so when Dolan magnificently widens the scope in two breathtaking scenes, all the hearts in Salle Debussy burst into spectacular applause, as the widescreen ratio becomes a visualisation to the brief joy, hopes and dreams of the three principal characters. Rarely has a cinematic technique achieve such devastating meaning and purpose, and no aspect-ratio change has made me tear up before. Dolan has used this ploy to precise dexterity in Tom at the Farm, but what he’s achieved in Mommy may be his best yet. Consider his name being talked and discussed in film schools in years to come.
It’s also a testament to Dolan’s emotional awareness that’s well beyond his years, rarely allowing style to overtake substance and depth despite a few forgivable indulgences. Mommy returns to the Dolan-book of filmmaking, replete with characters walking in slow-motion, music-video moments with a killer soundtrack (from Dido to Oasis, Celine Dion, Counting Crows, Andrea Botticelli and Lana del Rey), but none of these are used to detrimental effect. The music, for instance, is used to enhance the character’s emotional states – one scene involves the ADHD-ridden, abrasive and aggressive teen trouble Steve Després (played with full-throttle physicality and explosive bipolarity by Antoine-Olivier Pilon) rides a supermarket trolley across his neighbourhood and around a car park to the tune of Wonderwall. André Turpin’s cinematography captures this sequence in rapturous slow-motion, a brief idyll in a wild, rollercoaster life.
The eponymous mother Diane “Die” Després, a defiant, ferocious, trashily dressed yet exceptionally unflappable Anne Dorval, is a doting figure to Steve but with good reason. The boy is a force of nature, an unhinged storm that can swerve from hyper-affection to terrifying violence: one scene involves both engage in a brutal domestic lockdown, so upsetting that you fear for Die’s safety. And joining the fray between the two incredible figures is Suzanne Clément’s neighbour Kyla who suffers a stutter after a psychological breakdown. This supporting character could have been easily overshadowed by the leads, but Clément makes Kyla a wonderful addition to the messy, frenetic lives of Die and Steve, the three forming a sort of ménage-a-trois. Sexual references swell in this picture, the mother and son’s curious Oedipal relationship is put front and centre, and Dolan doesn’t shy away from this. But it’s this ambiguous relationship dynamics that keep Mommy alive and so full of possibilities, and Dolan charts all the ups and down with such restless energy, mirroring Steve’s unstable mental and psychological states, from overwhelming sadness to ecstatic highs. There are some minor longueurs, but that’s minimal in a film that sincerely and wholeheartedly portrays people at the edge of emotional stability and the operatic scope of a mother’s inner conflict and tremendous love. Perhaps no other director could make a film like Mommy, and Dolan clearly makes this his very own fierce creation. Watch the scene where Die imagines Steve’s unattainable future and not concede to Dolan’s spectacular talent – it’s one of the finest moments I’ve seen in cinema for a long time, an honest-to-goodness proof that Dolan is one of the most exciting, innovative filmmakers working today. Not bad for a 25-year old.