Mommy Dir. Xavier Dolan

[Roadside Attractions; 2015]

Styles: melodrama
Others: I Killed My Mother, The 400 Blows

Mommy is Xavier Dolan’s fifth film, but it’s also just his first film, I Killed My Mother, refilmed with someone besides himself in the lead, celluloid stock, and a 1:1 ratio. Another tale of fractious grappling between a rebellious — and here, violent and racist — son and an ineffectual but loving mother, this time amid an intermittently referenced hypothetical new Canadian law allowing parents to give up control of their children to the state and the interjections of various third parties — a sexually motivated lawyer, an out-of-work school teacher across the street — Mommy is relatively unaffected in its plotting and exegesis, a series of minor explosions and reconciliations well-known to the Sundance set, but that 1:1 ratio complicates matters without respite. A perfect square, an Instagram, an affectation, an aesthetic gambit, an easy dramatic gesture, an extremely claustrophobic viewpoint, the continuation of an apparent fascination with aspect ratio as structuring element that began with Tom at the Farm — it’s a bold move for what might otherwise be Dolan’s least ambitious film since his first.

Restricting a wide variety of the tools and tropes traditionally employed to amplify dramatic film, the overt, detached formalism of the disorienting 1:1 clashes up against the more overtly “pop” elements of Mommy, at once emotionally blunt in it’s suffocating constriction of space and distancing in its affects — even as Dolan otherwise pushes the film into his standard hyper-emotive territory, with flamboyantly bold acting, saturated colors, and effusive musical cues. For much of the running time, then, the main appeal is watching Dolan work his style around and through the constraints of that perfect square, moving the camera through space rather than staging in any kind of depth, the camera actively “seeking” emotion in an even more direct way, with characters’ “evasion” or “embrace” of the camera gaining ground as a primary structuring technique. The close-up, naturally, takes precedent, which plays well with Dolan’s now-established strength of working with actors, with Anne Dorval in particular turning in a complex mix of nuance and head-on melodrama as the titular mommy of Antoine-Olivier Pilont’s raging young Steve that nearly escapes the mundane predictably of the film’s coming-of-age arc, alternately soused and desperately sober, hungrily reaching for stability, connection, and forward momentum.

But when Steve pushes the frame lines outward during a few fleeting moments of joy only to have them come slowly crushing inwards as the particulars of their shared existence come crashing in, the 1:1 finally reveals its purpose as too much and too little at the same time, too affected to function as melodrama and so one-note that it makes whatever formal play it drove early on seem like mere set up for an easy sight gag that’s somehow not trying to be funny.

It’s most fruitful, then, to embrace this film for its uncomplicated verve and its contemporary approach to melodrama — both of which, for Dolan, hit their peak already in the masterful Laurence Anyways — even as it fails to deliver on the promise of both its radical filming approach and any particular thematic or psychological insight. As moments of cross-generational (or incestuous) sexual anxiety and aggression crop up, the film crests, most notably in an extended series of scenes involving Eiffel 65’s absurdist dance-pop hit “I’m Blue” that take the song more seriously than convention wisdom would suggest in a wretched combination of juvenile braggadocio and sexual harassment, or in a brawl over a karaoke session that torques the love dynamics traditionally inherent in the form.

Mommy is a liminal film, alternately entertaining a neo-modernist formal gambit and a neo-classical character-driven perspective, the two modes playing almost arbitrarily off one another. When the whole thing ends with a Lana Del Rey song played over a redo of the iconic final sequence of The 400 Blows, we’ve nearly reached the point where the too-much-debated formal irony of post-modernism collapses in on itself, but Dolan still can’t bring his modes into either synthesis or productive collapse. It’s a film that has little to say about much of anything, despite its constant grandstanding, but the convoluted mash of approaches he’s speaking with prove intermittently successful nonetheless, enjoyable for their own enthusiastic play.

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