Cannes 2014: Xavier Dolan's Excellent 'Mommy' is Cinema at its Best
by Alex Billington
May 22, 2014
This is the film I was waiting to see at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The one that is not only phenomenal in every way, but pushes the form, challenging audiences and cinema as we know it. Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan has returned to Cannes with his fifth feature, titled Mommy, a remarkably entertaining and ravishing work of art about raising a wild teen with ADHD in a fictional Canada. It's breathtaking, beautiful, stimulating and actually takes advantage of the art of visuals and the format of cinema in a remarkable way. Mommy is the masterpiece of Cannes 2014 that I was waiting to fall in love with. Dolan has done it again.
Young French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is a regular at Cannes, and his films are very stylish, with lush colors, loud music, slow-mo shots and handheld moments aplenty. Mommy features as much of that style, but uses it to its advantage, and actually pushes the form of cinema by being presented in 1:1 format, a square screen - think Instagram. While at first it seems if this is just a style choice, it's actually a much more brilliant and bold decision to add an additional layer of experience on top of the story, the visuals and the music. It confines us to a box, something that we're not used to when watching films, to make us feel as limited as the characters. We want to see outside of the box, but we can't, not until the few moments where the world is wonderful and widescreen. When that happens it will take your breath away. But it doesn't last.
Mommy, a title that is as alluring as it is questionable, delves into the troubles of raising kids in this modern day and age. Set in a fictional Canada where a law has allowed parents to place their children into the care of a "hospital" if they feel at risk, follows the story of one riled-up youngster named Steve, played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. His mother (played by Anne Dorval), now a widow, is a woman who never really seemed to grow up herself, always overdressing like she's still 16 and having trouble holding down any job where she can't use her looks to maintain her position. But her son is the crazy one, acting out so much at a boarding school they sent him home, to live with her again, and cause her life to reenter a clattering, crashing chaos.
For some people, raising a child, especially a wild one, can be stifling and exhausting. Never before have I seen a film attempt to convey that feeling through the experience of actually watching the film (as in the 1:1 format presentation), while also giving us so much to latch onto and admire as an audience. At its core the film is dark and ferocious, with more "fucks" than most R-rated movies, but there's also a lighter touch to it with humor in dialogue and action, and scenes of sympathy and understanding that shine out like the light through the darkness. Steve may be an asshole, but by the end he is lovable, we can find that good in him.
Dolan is able to carefully balance plot, characters, levity and tricky emotions with his visual style, while at the same time taking things even further by taking advatange of the format of cinema in ways we've never seen before. On the same day that Jean-Luc Godard premiered his first competition film in 20 years at Cannes, Dolan's Mommy also premiered, putting Godard's confused experiments in modern film to shame. Dolan is showing Godard how to push cinema forward in 2014, utilizing every aspect of visual storytelling (except 3D because who needs that) to tell an evocative, enjoyable and exhilarating story that is also timely. It's a reflective coming-of-age study on how to live, how to raise kids, how the ups & downs of life shape us.
This film blew me away. It took my breath away, made my heart beat faster, made me happy, made me sad, made me excited, and made me love movies even more. It's everything I want out of cinema, delivered in a gorgeous package, with a kick-ass soundtrack (how they got Oasis' "Wonderwall" still baffles me). And best of all, Dolan is one of the few who is actually using the big screen and aspect ratio as one of his storytelling tricks, a brilliant maneuver that shows young modern filmmakers are more creative than the old farts of past. They very likely influenced Dolan and his filmmaking in his early years, but now they need to step aside, because it's Dolan's turn to show the world how it's done. How to make a modern masterpiece. Bravo.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 10 out of 10