by Allan Fish
(Canada 2014 138m) DVD1/
Selfie on a square screen
p Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan d/w Xavier Dolan ph André Turpin ed Xavier Dolan m Noia art Colombe Raby
Anne Dorval (Diana Després), Antoine-Olivier Pilon (Steve Després), Suzanne Clément (Kyla), Patrick Huard (Paul), Alexandre Goyette (Patrick), Michéle Lituac (director of centre), Viviane Pascal (Marthe), Natalie Hamel-Roy (Natacha),
Back in 2008, an Irish film was released that got little attention outside of the Emerald Isle, but which comes flooding back to memory upon watching Xavier Dolan’s Cannes Prix Jury winner. On the surface they have little in common, except in a single artistic decision made by the director. The film was Lance Daly’s Kisses, a tale of two kids, boy and girl, living in the slums on the outskirts of Dublin – who run away from their respective domestic hells to the city centre. It begins in steely monochrome, but no sooner have they mounted a canal barge to make their journey to the Emerald City, their world slowly – and I mean slowly – begins to discover its colour, until by the time they reach the city centre, the monochrome has entirely been dispelled.
One has to wonder whether Dolan saw Daly’s film – probably not, few did – but what he does in Mommy isn’t altogether different. What we have here is another sort of broken home. Mother Diane is told that her ADHD teenage son Steve is being thrown out of his detention centre for setting fire to the cafeteria and faces the choice of having him home taught or looked after – and that really is a euphemism – by the government. She chooses the former, taking him home, but finding herself equally unable to deal with his extreme highs or his extremely violent, aggressive lows. That is until, following one of their fights, in which Diane hurts him when in genuine fear for her life, Steve meets the woman living opposite, Kyla. She reassures him and seems to calm him, but she has psychological demons of her own.
From the get-go Dolan’s film is aesthetically disorienting, employing the use of a rigidly square 1:1 ratio frame. Clearly the frame is his monochrome to colour, intended as a metaphor for the extreme claustrophobia experienced not only by the frustrated Steve but by the no longer able to cope Diane and, ultimately, his audience. It’s as if the film has been straitjacketed, but then, magically, as if responding to the command ‘Open Sesame’ the screen expands, like one imagines the curtains expanding to reveal the ultra-widescreen of The Robe back in 1953, in a couple of sequences where the protagonists threaten to break free from their shackles. They’re moments of ecstatic liberation, and could seem rather twee if the film itself hadn’t earned the right to such symbolism.
Dolan’s film, his fifth despite only being 24 at the time of shooting, may be rough around the edges, but its raw, coruscating energy is hard to ignore. It has essences of the Dardenne Brothers’ oeuvre, but its anger hasn’t been in their work since their own great Cannes success Rosetta. In other ways it better recalls the work of Alan Clarke, if without his incessant, trademark in your face Steadicam, and one is again reminded of David Thomson’s description of Clarke as a poet for all those figures who prowl like animals in their cages. Dolan’s radical framing likewise emphasises the imprisoned, caged feeling and his actors, and they respond magnificently. Pilon’s Steve will take you through the emotional wringer, going from frustration to heartbreak in a heartbeat, while Dorval – who has a touch of the Marisa Tomei about her that makes one shudder to imagine a traditional Hollywood take on such a story – is equally imperious as the mother who’s gone so far beyond coping she’s now the lit touchpaper to Steve’s violent attacks. Finally there’s Clément, bearing her own invisible ‘Fragile, Handle With Care’ sign and, in her own way, equally heartrending. Dolan’s film is the essence of what cinema should be, exposing the comparative fraudulence of Linklater’s Boyhood – a merely well-acted and directed 13 year family album, a gimmick in search of a core – in an instant, and distilling life in the end into one question no less absurd than any other; “pie or crisp?”