Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Review of Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan has long been one of the premier auteurs working in the cinema, a Quebecois maestro whose films are often barnstorming, bruising, blistering achievements of emotional content married to extremes of stylish form. Ever since his debut in 2009 with the tour-de-force "I Killed My Mother", one of the great, and most devastating, portrayals of parenthood that I've seen, I've approached each Dolan film afterwards with an almost spiritual expectation such are the depth that his films seem to reach into my soul and stir my innermost feelings.

His films are so soulful, and come from a place of such sincerity and feeling, that each successive effort hasn't failed to transport me to a world that only the greatest films can, where every action on the screen holds you in rapture, where the characters fill you with love and contemplation, where the visual style is so in tune with the themes and thought; his films are whole, they are events, and they transport the viewer, this viewer, to a world that is often painful to leave. They are the cinema working in full force.

So for me to say that Dolan's latest film, "Mommy", is by far his most emphatic work to date, his most alive and vibrant, and his most mature and complete, then, is a compliment of the highest order. But few films have enraptured me so, even including films of his own oeuvre. From the very opening, in which we are introduced to Anne Dorval's Diane ("Die") in a car crash which doesn't leave her injured so much as leave her swearing and angry, we can immediately sense her irrepressible spirit.

She's on her way to a meeting with a counsellor in a detention centre who tells her that her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has set fire to a canteen, causing another child to be hospitalised. A faulty walkie-talkie reveals a barrage of crude cursing, insults, swearing. Die smiles; this is her mother's son.

The following scene was one of the best of the film, because it did what it was trying to do so simply, and with such skill in the writing; as we follow Die and Steve on their way home, their relationship is drawn out in full. He is a profane, almost violently exuberant young man who is nevertheless filled with a love for his mother that is almost overwhelming. She, equally, loves his son to the end of the world, but there is tragedy to how she is regards his energy; she knows this is him, she accepts him, but she is also scared of how that energy can sometimes overflow into violence. His actions, loving though they are, have a roughness to them, a force, which comes directly from his overabundance of feeling.

This is all down to Pilon's performance, which is a masterclass in movement. His whole body is his own puppet, and he is in complete control over it. You sense he has gone away and thought about his character, reflected on him, and then inhabited him completely. The performance, and hence the character, is organic, real, home-grown. His violence is not a tic or a cheap acting trick; it feels so real, and hence the tension between them also feels incredibly real.

And on, and on, their relationship, incredibly intimate, almost Oedipal (Steve doesn't shy away from his masturbation habits in front of his mother) is carefully defined before us. On an afternoon where Steve and Die's play-fighting becomes something more serious, however, a neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clement) from across the street who has only waved at Die before now enters the house, and almost instantly has a calming and embalming effect on their dynamic. She dresses a cut on Steve's leg, reveals her quiet, stuttering nature, and leaves. Die is in awe; someone like this is sorely needed in this loving but volatile environment. She takes a bottle of wine over as thanks (poured from a cardboard carton in the fridge), which is received by her taciturn, enigmatic husband.

Soon, Kyla is a regular fixture in their house, a teacher on Sabbatical (we sense a breakdown, but Dolan doesn't paint this out) who is drawn in by the pair's energy and enthusiasm.

From here, the film is nothing more and nothing less than one of the most whole, funny, touching, heartbreaking character studies I have seen, observing the behaviours of these three misfits through highs and lows, peaks and troughs. If it all sounds very soap-opera ish, then maybe there is a case to be made that it is, but this is elevated soap-opera, with every frame imbued and embellished with feeling and care; Dolan wants us so deeply to love these dysfunctional people, and we do. Their pair have such rapport, and care so deeply about us, that our feelings are stirred and we too become involved in their fates; we want nothing more than for them to be okay. Think about the last time you cared about characters in a film to this extent.

A word must go to frames, however, as this is easily, on a technical level, the most audacious film Dolan has yet made. Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (the film is a square), what could have easily been a gimmick is the film's coup-de-grace. In isolating each character, it is as though they are singled out whenever they are on screen. It allows us to focus on them and consider them untouched by others, and so on whenever each character is placed centre-forward. It's a daring trick, but it works brilliantly.

This is also the most visually beautiful and direct of Dolan's films, a smorgasbord of colour, action and activity, where almost artificially blue skies meet never-ending grey roads, and character bounce along the middle on bikes, skateboards and with shopping trollies. There is an almost cartoonish sense to the film, as if heightened reality, allowing the emotions to take on a palpably prescient quality. This is amplified through the cheesy songs on the soundtrack; even Oasis's Wonderwall is used well. (yes, the most overplayed and over-rated song maybe of all time is used effectively).

And that's the film. I have no flaws, nothing to pick apart. I laughed and cried with ferocity and in equal measure, and I didn't want to leave this world. This is a fairly long film at over two-hours, and Dolan uses that length to startling effect. It is a whole and complete work, and one that lingers in the mind and the spirit for some time afterwards. I am grateful that Dolan made it, because it is more than a film, it is a lesson in empathy and a treatise on the irriducibility of the human spirit.

I, as ever, await the next work by this great master, and if he manages to top this towering piece of work, then he may just cement himself in the pantheon of masters for good; that is, if he hasn't done so already, and I'm certainly arguing his case.

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