That Breathtaking Cinematic Moment in Xavier Dolan's 'Mommy'
by Alex Billington
January 19, 2015
"It's not where you take things from—it's where you take them to." (-Jean-Luc Godard) There is a moment in Xavier Dolan's film Mommy, officially my #1 film of 2014, that took my breath away. It's the kind of moment all cinema enthusiasts live for, the kind of visceral surprise that leaves you in such awe that you end up holding your breath until that moment – the scene – ends. The more I think about it, the more it grows in my mind, and upon further reflection I believe it is one of the defining moments in cinema in 2014. That no one is talking about… yet. I can't get it out of my mind, and out of everything I saw in 2014, it's one of the most brilliant cinematic decisions any filmmaker made. Xavier Dolan showing the rest how it's done.
Ever since first seeing Mommy at the Cannes Film Festival last summer (here's my initial review), where it first premiered, I've struggled with figuring out how to discuss this moment. It's such a key part of the film that connects directly to every viewer's emotional experience with the film, with the way it's presented, and with the medium of cinema, that I don't want to ruin it. I don't want to give it away, and telling you about it in advance ruins the actual experience of it happening right in front of your eyes. But, there's no way to get around this - I must discuss it, and in doing so risk ruining the experience for those who are going to read all about it before seeing Mommy. But if that gets more people to even watch this film at all, then so be it.
Xavier Dolan's Mommy, the fifth feature film from the young Quebecois filmmaker, is about a wild teen's relationship with his mother. The film is presented in the 1:1 aspect ratio, think Instagram, meaning it is a square in the middle of the screen. This is an incredibly jarring and very bold choice because, when thinking about it, most films we watch in our lives are "widescreen". There are a handful of aspect ratios, and up until the 1950s/1960s everyone mostly used 1.33:1, or the "Academy ratio". Then with the invention of Cinerama and CinemaScope in the 1950s came the widescreen craze, which converted Hollywood into a widescreen industry. Ever since it's all about being wide, with 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 common. To see a 1.33:1 film nowadays evokes a feeling of the past, or of constraint with regards to the screen. In the case of Mommy, it's the latter.
Dolan says he chose to make this in 1:1 with his cinematographer André Turpin (of Incendies, Tom at the Farm). "Having shot a music video in 1:1 last year, it dawned on me that this ratio translated a somewhat unique emotion and sincerity," he explains. I agree, though I think it adds an even deeper layer of emotion to the film. It feels limiting, we can sense there's more going on outside of the box, but we are stuck, only able to follow the camera's movements even though there's more going on. But it is this feeling that mirrors the emotions of Diane, the mother, and the way her life feels constrained by her son, Steve. It's empathy at its very best, using our internal struggle as the audience to make us feel what it's like to be this character.
That concept alone, the way Dolan utilizes the screen and our window into his world as an added layer of emotional manipulation, is evidence of his brilliance. However, he takes it even further when he gives us the moment of expansion. If the film never had this scene, it would not have been as effective, and perhaps the aspect ratio would not have felt as constraining so much as just an aesthetic choice. But that's not the case. When everything is going good, when you're having a good week, the world seems to get brighter and all of a sudden more of it seems to be in your reach. That emotion is replicated by the moment in Mommy when the footage expands from 1:1 to widescreen, set to "Wonderwall" by Oasis, making it an utterly perfect scene.
The entire film is brilliant as Dolan really embraces the format, using the screen to impact our emotions at yet another level. At first, the aspect ratio seems constraining, limiting, which is exactly how Diane feels when we're first getting introduced to her and her crazy child is thrown into her arms. Eventually, we find some comfort in it, as Turpin fills up the frame and brings such beauty to every shot. Soon we forget that it's even that limiting, embracing fully the progression of the story (and the characters). Then the big moment happens after ups and downs; but it's on their way up, when there is some hope, that the frame opens. When I saw this for the first time, I gasped. My heart raced. I held my breath. I couldn't believe he was doing this.
The frame slowly begins to open during "Wonderwall", evoking an instantaneous emotional reaction. It's the kind of feeling you get after being under intense pressure, before getting a moment of solace, a free second to take a breath of fresh air. I can only imagine it's similar to the deeply ingrained feeling of freedom that a prisoner must feel upon release. And that's the thing - it is short lived (in Mommy). It doesn't last, as much as I expected it to at first. Instead, we get a momentary reminder of what it's like when everything is perfect. When there are no more constraints, or worries, and it's bright and wonderful, and everyone is smiling. It's a transcendent cinematic moment that I argue touches upon an instinctual emotion that cannot usually be affected through conventional storytelling or dialogue. At Cannes, they broke into applause. I joined in, too.
From the official press notes, Xavier Dolan discusses the origins of using the 1:1 aspect ratio for this film:
"The perfect square framed faces with such simplicity, and seemed like the ideal structure for 'portrait' shots. No distraction, no affectations are possible in such constricted space. The character is our main subject, inescapably at the center of our attention. Our eyes cannot miss him, her."
"1:1 is, besides, the ratio of album covers and CD's, all of these jackets that have imprinted in our imaginations over time. The Die & Steve Mix 4ever being a leitmotif for us, the use of 1:1 found an additional echo. It is also, to be frank, my DP André Turpin's favorite ratio which he had, apparently, dreamed of using his entire life without ever daring to do so (he's also a director, and directed the extremely enjoyable Zigrail, Middle-East road trip shot in black and white and featuring some brutal early John Zorn!)."
"After having now spent a year with him busting my balls at just about every shot, regretting our infamous ratio, I've learned two things: André loves cinemascope and I, for one, have absolutely no regrets in this matter."
Indeed. That inspired choice makes the film truly one-of-a-kind; deserving of attention for being so bold.
At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Dolan received the "Jury Prize" award in a tie with Jean-Luc Godard, who brought his new film Goodbye to Language 3D to the iconic festival. Most critics seemed to obsess over Godard and his 3D gimmick in that film above all else, while generally ignoring the more transcendent and progressive moment in Mommy. It's obvious the jury at Cannes found both films to be unique, and instead of having to choose one over the other, they gave the award to both filmmakers for challenging conventional cinema. However, I believe it's Dolan who effectively used the medium of film to enhance the emotions of the story he's telling, whereas Godard went for the visual gimmick that didn't add anything to the narrative.
On the other hand, one of the other reasons the film's screen expansion moment is being dismissed might be because it's too similar to the expansion moment in Abel Gance's Napoléon, the epic 1927 black & white biopic. Abel Gance, a cinema pioneer in the early days, wanted to capture the scope of the final battle scenes in his film and invented a projection system (called "polyvision" at the time) that added two screens to each side of the footage. It was, effectively, the very first version of "widescreen" cinema created simply by adding additional projectors that were lined up perfectly with the others. Gance used this innovative technique to show the size of the battlefield, but also used the other screens to show other scenes (see the photo below).
It was, ironically enough, Jean-Luc Godard who once said that it is "not where you take things from—it's where you take them to." In the case of Mommy, this moment should not be dismissed just because Gance did it 87 years before Dolan did. Instead, it deserves immense praise and intensive analysis because it's one of the first times a filmmaker has played with aspect ratio to add even more layers of emotion and empathy to the narrative itself. In Mommy it's not just a creative stylistic choice, it's not just for fun or to be unique, or something chosen because we rarely see it, it actually had meaning deeply connected with the story. And watching the screen expand during this scene, in this way in 2014, in this story, was indeed breathtaking.
You can see what it's like when the screen expands in Napoléon in this YouTube trailer for a screening.
It took another 20 years until the rest of the movie industry caught up with widescreen formats. It wasn't until the invention of Cinerama, and the release of the first film "This is Cinerama" from 1952, that the industry started adopting widescreen. Similarly to Napoléon, This is Cinerama featured a scene (also in the trailer here) where the screen expands to show just how much more you get to view in a wider image. This was the beginning of the marketing gimmick of widescreen, and the idea that it's about seeing more of the world that the story takes place in. Again, a defining moment for cinema, but not yet using the format to influence emotions connected with the story. This is Cinerama is mostly narrative-less footage from planes and helicopters (and rollercoasters). How the West Was Won was also filmed in Cinerama ten years later.
In this modern world where inexpensive yet powerful movie cameras and filmmaking tools are available to consumers of all kinds, we rarely ever see footage that challenges the medium of cinema as we've come to know it. Most directors shoot and deliver widescreen, and yes we have formats like IMAX/70mm that allow us to see even more outside the box, but it's very rare to see aspect ratio used in connection with emotion. (I wasn't able to find many good examples* in my research aside from early Cinerama movies.) For the most part, expanding the sides of the screen has been a way to show more of what's happening in a cinematic way. Dolan took this visual idea even further to make us feel the differences between constraint and freedom.
Great filmmakers, perhaps the greatest filmmakers, recognize that originality is overrated and it's all about applying their own sensibilities to whatever work has inspired them throughout their life. As explained best:
"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent." -Jim Jarmusch
Perhaps what it comes down to is everyone's individual experience with cinema and the movies we've seen. Seeing Abel Gance's Napoléon or This Is Cinerama for the very first time on the big screen is probably just as breathtaking to experience. Unfortunately none of us can go back to the days where there only were 1.33:1 movies, and Napoléon was the only one in existence that was different. But we should also appreciate, even 87 years later, that filmmakers are still being inspired by the legendary cinema icons of past and pushing the format even further. Dolan may not have invented aspect ratio expansion, but he might have perfected it.
"Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." (-Martin Scorsese) Every filmmaker knows and understands this. But there are some filmmakers who take their understanding to the next level. Imagine spending a month locked up in a small studio apartment, unable to go out anywhere. Finally, after working passionately to even earn a chance to exit, you're allowed to go outside on a lovely summer day and do whatever you want. That relief, that feeling of freedom, of escape, of unbridled happiness, is an emotion that's near impossible to evoke through narrative alone. But Dolan has achieved the impossible by thinking differently about the medium of cinema and our experience with it. Mommy opens starting January 23rd.
*Addendum: I should mention a few other great movies recently with unique aspect ratios: Ida, the Polish film from Pawel Pawlikowski, which was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar recently. The entire film is presented 1.33:1 in B&W and it's beautiful. And also The Artist, from director Michel Hazanavicius, which was shot in 1.33:1 format to replicate the style that it's mimicking. There are other recent examples of movies that use aspect ratio as a visual style, such as Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel which connects the ratio with the time period, and it's also nice to see this in films. Mommy plays around with the aspect ratio in a brilliant way, but that's not to say there aren't others doing progressive visual work as well.