• MOMMY: Dolan's film tells the story of a mother's complex love for her troubled teenage son. The crowd at the Cannes screening erupted in spontaneous applause mid-film, during one particularly memorable scene.

A widowed single mother (Anne Dorval) struggles to raise her violent son but finds relief when her neighbour comes to her rescue and provides much needed support. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (tied with Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye To Language).

 

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CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Gimmick-prone filmmaker Xavier Dolan finds an appropriate outlet for his excesses in telling the story of a dysfunctional mother/son dynamic, in his Palme d’Or contender, Mommy [sic].

Maternal love is a through line of Dolan’s short but prolific career, with exhausted single mothers in particular, a mainstay of all of his previous four films (which mined aspects of the director's own backstory to present a son's point of view, to varying degrees of success). Multi-hyphenate Dolan is often criticised for having a narcissistic lack of self-restraint – of not knowing when/how to hold back. Though his fifth film bears some of the same characteristics, this time the floridity has a counterpoint in the story of a mother’s altruism.

A detailed prologue over-explains a new law in a “fictional Canada” of the very near future, which assigns parents the moral right to have their children committed, no questions asked.  This ominous factoid is then set to one side, much like a loaded gun in a drawer, as a struggling single mum deals with her unpredictable, violent son.

A force of nature in spangled jeans and chunky heels, Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) swears like a wharfie and takes no shit from anyone, least of all her wayward son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Piton). When he is expelled from boarding school for acts of arson, she has few options other than to home school the reluctant student, who would much rather fling shopping trolleys in abandoned car parks than spend serious time hitting the books.

The too-alike mother and son bond with their shy and traumatised neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clement), and all three form a family unit over a shared love of cask wine and MOR ballads. Ensconced in a private universe that common sense, music cues and camera tricks tell us is completely unsustainable, the trio turns into calm, non-stuttering versions of their better selves over a joyous couple of months. But Steve’s ADHD fuels violent mood swings, and the ever-present threat of an outburst has long-lasting repercussions.

Dolan and DOP André Turpin box Die, Steve and Kyla into their situation, by employing a 1:1 ratio for the frame. Though it’s a bit like watching life unfold through a hipstamatic app lens, the technique emphasises the claustrophobic nature of Die’s sun-deprived Quebecois townhouse.

There's a moment set to music (of course), that sweeps us out to a 16:9 perspective – albeit temporarily – and we get a true sense of what Steve, and we, have been missing to that point. The reveal brings unexpected, welcome relief – indeed, the packed Debussy Theatre in Cannes burst into spontaneous applause when it came.  Later on, Die gets her own fleeting glimpse out of a big, wide-angled window, in a melancholy montage of unrealised potential.

Dolan is wont to cram as much music into his film as he possibly can without overlap; so it is that the Mommy soundtrack is a veritable wall-to-Wonderwall mixtape of Europop, Dido and Celine Dion torch songs. The lyrics are a tad over-expository to be sure, but they have roots within the narrative, originating from a playlist created by Die’s late husband for a cherished family road trip.

There are moments of great tenderness in this study of an inextinguishable toxic love. It signals a boundary shift that goes further than in the film's aspect ratio, and suggests that Dolan's switch to a different perspective might finally be letting his films breathe.

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2 hours 20 min