Mommy – Xavier Dolan (2014)
Finally. Mommy has been on my watch-list since its release in 2014 which was now 3 whole years ago. I read somewhere that Mommy was set in Montreal, Quebec, although to someone with very little knowledge of Canada (bar those Geography videos I watch), that was not at all explicit. But that does mean that, with the exception of the odd break in a sentence caused by and English expression here and there, it is entirely in French. More importantly though, and astonishingly, Xavier Dolan made this film at the age of 25, which marks his fifth feature film, which is ridiculous and is making everybody else look bad. Like many good films, it received mixed reviews from critics but was overall a celebrated one, winning the Jury Prize and Cannes.
Now, the first time I watched this film I hadn’t read too much about it bar a bit of the plot, so I wasn’t quite ready for the 1:1 aspect ratio (a perfect square) when it hit me. After the initial checking that we hadn’t downloaded an incomplete copy and that the aspect ratio was intention, I spent a good half of the film trying to get used to it and was overall quite thrown off, even after adjusting and even though I thought the content was really charming. If this describes your viewing of Mommy then I’d recommend watching it again because second time around. The first time I watched it, I liked it. The second time I watched it, I loved it. Once I was used to the aspect ratio, it made a lot more sense and I could focus much easier. Also, after the first viewing I read and watched a few interviews with Dolan who explained:which helped me appreciate the framing of the characters in a way that I hadn’t on my first viewing. For some reason though, both times, apart from the obvious one that I’ve used as my featured image here, the changes in aspect ratio throughout the film escaped my notice. I’d suddenly realise I was seeing a full image, but didn’t remember seeing the transition.
Besides the aspect ratio, I was frankly baffled by the soundtrack on the first viewing. When I heard the first few notes of Dido’s White Flag within the first 10 minutes I was confused, little did I know I’d soon hear Wonderwall in a context that made no sense to me. It did, however, make me smile, ranging from local hero Celine Dion’s ‘On ne change pas‘ (which features in my absolute favourite scene in the film) to 1990’s throwbacks like Blue (Da Ba Dee). After the second viewing I’ve fully embraced this weird and wonderful mix, and accepted it for the unapologetic mess it is (in fact I’m listening to it as I write this).
We are introduced to the film’s world with a sci-fi-esque prologue that describes the fictional Canada in which a new government comes into power in 2015, introducing an ‘S-14 bill’, giving the parents of children with behavioural problems ‘the legal right to put their child in the care of any public hospital without due process of the law if they are in a situation of financial distress, physical and/or psychological danger.’ The plot focuses on Die, whose son, Steve has ADHD, an attachment disorder and violent tendencies. The film reveals that after the death of her husband, Die could no longer look after Steve who had been involved in a string of minor crimes, and after his diagnosis had him placed in a detention centre.
We meet Steve as he is being released from said detention centre for starting a fire, back into Die’s care. Having exhausted most of the options she is comfortable with for Steve’s care, Die attempts to keep Steve from trouble, with the help of her shy, new neighbour Kyla (pictured below on right) who home-schools him. For all his violent outbursts and inappropriate vocal explosions, Steve is a likeable character who is fundamentally troubled and in need of love, which Die and Kyla can only try so hard to provide.
In the past, Dolan has been accused of favouring style over substance, but for all the stylistic quirks in ‘Mommy’, he certainly does not lack in substance. In fact the stylistic features facilitate substance, the aspect ratio forcing us to focus on the characters in depth, and even the random soundtrack adding to the story of Steve’s outbursts, highs and lows.
In short, I think this is one of my favourite films now. It’s free to watch if you sign up to Cinemoticon or it might be on Netflix (I’m not sure if it’s still there since Dolan, rightly, got mad at them for changing the aspect ratio). Anyway, go watch it.