Xavier Dolan‘s Mommy is, for me, the third levitational flick of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the other two being Damian Szifron‘s Wild Tales and David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars. That said, the first 50 minutes of Mommy is punishment — assaultive, infuriating, occasionally amusing but more often lemme-outta-here. But I could tell toward the end of my session with this boxy-is-beautiful psychodrama (which I was only able to watch for 75 minutes due to an appointment I was honor-bound to keep) that Dolan had gotten hold of something that was not only focused and working but was slowly building into something more. I didn’t “like” watching much of it, but Mommy is an eye-opener — a movie like no other I’ve seen during this festival. No apologies, full throttle, very few shadings…exclamation!
Mommy costars Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon.
I’m still no Dolan fan (Heartbeats, his second film which I saw here four years ago, sounded the first warning) and his general off-screen rep is that he’s a bit of a histrionic handful. But when I read a line from a review by Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Dalton that “The Ego has landed,” I knew I had to submit myself.
The first 50 minutes were mute nostril agony. This was due to the hyper, grating, wild-dog personality of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), an intelligent but madly obnoxious, violence-prone 16 year-old whose hellbent behavior is the high-torque engine of the piece. His widowed, mouthy, floozy-ish, somewhat hyper mom Diane (Anne Dorval) is forced to take Steve into her home after a Canadian facility for temperamental problem kids has kicked him out for outrageously aggressive behavior. The two of them goad and argue and shove each other around, although Steve is much more belligerent and, in one scene, physically threatening to the point that the only solution, it seems, is to shoot him a tranquilizer dart, inject him with Thorazine and put him in a padded cell. Or just take him to a nearby zoo and throw him to the lions and be done with it.
But once a high-school-teacher neighbor (Suzanne Clement) joins the party, the film mellows down somewhat before cranking up again. To my surprise it began to feel semi-tolerable and even redeeming in spurts. I was saying to myself there might be way out of this bedlam apart from the afore-mentioned remedies. I began to sense that the animal-froth element in Mommy had a scheme and perhaps even a rhyme. Dolan, who is presumably drawing from some aspect of his own teenage behavior, was working the controls and taming the lion. He’s upped his game, all right, and I’m now persuaded (resigned?) to seeing all of Mommy when I’m good and ready back in the States, but good God.
Again: I didn’t leave at the 75-minute mark because I couldn’t stand Steve but because I had an appointment. I was willing to stay despite the pain, but I don’t blow people off. If I say I’m going to be someplace at a given time, I’m there.
Sasha Stone wrote that Mommy is “such a beautiful film…my God. Watching it made me miss [Roger] Ebert because I know he would have not only loved the movie but he would have helped encourage this brilliant young filmmaker to keep making movies.” I still say Dolan is a gifted but very problematic…okay, irksome filmmaker. Not for everyone (and definitely not for me) but I recognize that Mommy is floating a lot of boats around Cannes as we speak, and that it may win something at the end of the day.
Variety‘s Peter Debruge called it “a funny, heartbreaking and, above all, original work from Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan.”
The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw says “it’s an uproariously emotional movie, to all appearances painfully personal and featuring performances which are almost operatic in scale.”
Aspect ratio note: One of the reasons I felt I had to sit through Mommy was Dolan’s decision to honor HE’s “boxy is beautiful” theology by shooting it within a pure box — 1:1. From my front-row vantage point it seemed like it was closer to 1 to 1.2 or 1 to 1.3 — taller than it was wide. But Dolan said during the press conference it was definitely 1:1 so we have to take him as his word.