What's On


Mommy welcomes viewers into a womb-like embrace that is overflowing with the warmth of comfort and the shock of the alternative.

Xavier Dolan once announced ‘I Killed My Mother’ in a film title that made his complex considerations of mother-son relationships more than plain. He has also told of the intricacy of intimacy in Heartbeats, the struggle for identity outside the norm in Laurence Anyways, and the lure of the forbidden in Tom at the Farm. In 2014 Cannes Film Festival jury prize winner Mommy, the prodigious and prolific filmmaker weaves all four concepts into a concoction concerned with loving and being, both as a child and as a parent. It asks: where do the boundaries exist in the maternal bond? It ponders: when can a mother’s love be right as well as wrong? It probes: how can good intentions be upheld and undone?

The mother of the film’s title is Diane Després (Anne Dorval, Canadian TV’s The Family Parent) or Die, as she prefers. Her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Mémoires vives), may be close to becoming a man, but he remains what many would call a handful, always loud and mischievous, never respecting any form of rule imposed, and prone to destructive behaviour and violent outbursts. Returning home from an institutionalised stint, his difficulties are curbed by the involvement of kindly neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clément, Amsterdam), in their lives. The trio’s quandaries aren’t quelled, but they are satiated for the halcyon moments they spend in each other’s company.

Against the writhing powerhouse of Pilon’s soft-eyed tempestuousness, it makes complete cinematic and thematic sense for the wunderkind auteur to bring the purveyors of the two strongest female roles in his films to date together, as it does to paint them as polar opposites united by a volatile shared cause. Dolan’s winning ways with his actresses again shines as Dorval plays confident and glamorous, Clément shy and modest, and both fragile in their characters’ textured own ways. Together, they form harmonising halves of the ultimate maternal influence Steve needs to calm his headstrong ways, yet Mommy doesn’t shy away from the resulting cost. Broad strokes may paint the fallout from the trio’s fleetingly transcendent, eventually troubled meeting of minds and hearts as a roster of cries for help and resulting consequences fill the narrative; however not one ounce of sentiment is unearned.

With a recurrent bout of the ample aesthetic assurance that has frequently furnished his films, Dolan takes another leap forward in matching his visual and musical palettes with his expressive content, as most obviously channelled into the feature’s use of a 1:1 aspect ratio. The fluid camera frames its subjects tightly, evoking not just closeness but also claustrophobia, and never allowing the audience the luxury of distance. In support, the soundtrack of pop hits conjures thoughts of a specific time and feelings of a certain mood, wistfulness and even whimsy helping to temper the many raw eruptions. One particular instance, one instantly iconic, unforgettable and awe inspiring in its horizon-opening audacity, proves the ideal culmination of the auteur’s eye and its associated flourishes.

There can be no easy answers or neat endings, of course, but there can be the full gamut of reactions, as tragedy and comedy, hope and heartbreak, brutality and delicacy all deftly combine in an effort that skirts around its inherent melodrama. That’s the multifaceted beauty that repeatedly emerges from Dolan’s singular works, the acceptance of the many shattered – and shattering – fragments of ordinary existence. Though the futuristic context, telling of a Quebec in which parents distressed by the burden of caring for their children can relinquish them to the state, is unnecessary, the story that stems from it is anything but. Surpassing the embryonic and giving birth to the perfectly imperfect, Mommy welcomes viewers into a womb-like embrace that is insular, immersive and overflowing with the warmth of comfort and the shock of its alternative.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Director: Xavier Dolan
Canada, 2014, 139 mins

Melbourne International Film Festival  
31 July – 17 August

Sarah Ward

Friday 18 July, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay