MOMMY

mommy

Those familiar with Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s small, extraordinary oeuvre may notice the title and remember that his first feature was called I KILLED MY MOTHER. This, his fifth, is not a sequel, but it occasionally scans as a twisted, alternate-reality mirror of the earlier film. What registers next is the conspicuous 1:1 aspect ratio, rendering the canvas an intentionally claustrophobic square box. It requires an adjustment of perception on the viewer’s part, but you easily acclimate yourself and go along for the ride. Dolan, who has already made what I consider two great films (I KILLED MY MOTHER and LAURENCE ANYWAYS) scores again with MOMMY, another epic character study. Drunk on style but packed with substance, it bespeaks life experience on a level that’s unexpected from a 25-year-old.

Once again, Anne Dorval plays the mother, here named Diane (often going by the somewhat self-immolating nickname “Die”), but she’s considerably earthier (and a little trashier) than Chantle, her bourgeois matron of the earlier film. Now too old to play her teenaged son, Dolan remains behind the camera, casting Antoine-Olivier Pilon as Steve, an alter-ego but not necessarily a stand-in. To put it lightly, 14-year-old Steve has serious behavioral issues—Die dismisses it as ADHD, but it’s blindingly apparent there’s some mental illness present. Early on, we learn Steve has been living in a detention center. After he starts a fire that severely injures a fellow inmate, Die offers to take him back into her home. Although he initially comes off like your average bratty and precocious teen, within seconds, he can become horrifically violent, physically lashing out at whomever provokes him (in most cases, it’s Die). Following one of his episodes, a third central figure drifts into focus: Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy, secretive neighbor. Curiously, she starts spending all her time with Die and Steve, bonding with them to a degree we almost never see when she’s with her own husband and child.

Dorval, so good in I KILLED MY MOTHER, is even better as Die. She makes a vivid impression right from the first scene, where a car crash and the Sarah McLachlan song “Building A Mystery” collide. You can detect her lineage in a long line of self-absorbed, tarted-up, generally inappropriate-but-still-loving mother figures, from Gena Rowlands in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE to Jennifer Saunders in ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS—if MOMMY was in English and distributed by, say, Fox Searchlight, there’d certainly be Oscar buzz around her performance. In what will likely be his breakthrough role, Pilon is more than capable of expressing and validating Steve’s startling mood swings, while Clément, an absolutely towering presence in LAURENCE ANYWAYS, is nearly unrecognizable here, speaking in a most tentative stutter and dressed so blandly as if to nearly disappear into her surroundings.

Still, there’s a reason why Dolan is receiving the most accolades for the film (he shared the Jury Prize at Cannes with no less a living legend than Jean-Luc Godard): regardless of whether your own sensibility is compatible with Dolan’s, in every frame, you know you’re watching the work of someone with a limitless artistic vision. He makes a dull Montreal suburb seem both otherworldly and approachable. The soundtrack, as usual, is stirring and immense, using artists as disparate as Vivaldi and Lana Del Rey, breathing life into an overfamiliar standard like Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, even redeeming an unloved, half-forgotten hit like Dido’s “White Flag”. And, rather than constricting his scope, the box-like ratio allows Dolan to piece together a different way of seeing: his oblique camera angles and unpredictable, swooping pans are completely in sync with all the chaotic, swerving emotions expressed by the three main characters—keep this in mind while watching, for Dolan actually rewards those paying attention to this dichotomy (to say anything less cryptic would spoil the fun in discovering it).

MOMMY is not flawless. The title cards, which establish a legal reason for Die taking custody of Steve via a new Canadian law “passed in 2015” (when the film’s ostensibly set) are muddled and completely unnecessary. Although nearly a half-hour shorter than the 168-minute LAURENCE ANYWAYS, it still feels a tad long. However, apart from those title cards, I can’t think of a good reason to cut anything. Dolan may be self-indulgent, but he’s never, ever boring. Often, he’s genuinely brilliant—nothing, nothing I’ve seen in many years is more poignant than the scene of Die, Steve and Kyla dancing together in a darkened kitchen to Celine Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas” or as intense and breathtaking as the extended fast-forward montage set to a modern classical piece late in the film. Earlier, I alluded to A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE and while Dolan’s aesthetic is nothing at all like John Cassavetes’, he’s the rare auteur today making movies that are just as messy and passionate and uncompromising and sublime.  Grade: A

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