Mommy – Darling Xavier Dolan. (Film Review)

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Mommy is now showing at the Sydney Film Festival

You can grab your tickets here

I am reposting this review, because it is opening mainstream tomorrow. Don’t miss this exceptional film.

It’s scary stuff when a film praised as highly as Xavier Dolan’s Mommy exceeds expectations, but it does, and no matter how many reviews you will read or how high your expectations they will be exceeded, because this is one of those rare films  – perhaps defined by the inability of so many films to reach these heights – that taps into a unique universal that all audience members can feel evoking a profound intimacy that somehow unites us in the dark. In the end, it all comes back to how something like this can affect you personally, because Mommy is a deeply personal film, and for me, as the single mother of a teenage boy, I will tell you I have never seen the mother/son relationship reflected so powerfully in art, with all its fearful depth and worrisome excesses. Mommy is so many things to so many different people, but for me it articulated the deep fear parents feel at the intensity of connection they forge with their children, most of all that psychosexual connection, generally reserved for parents and child of the opposite sex that so explodes all conceptions of order and society that it can rarely be talked about outside of the language of Freud and the mechanistic calculations of academese that uses willful distance to create what it imagines to be clarity; but in fact falls dramatically short of the terrifying power of the connection of parent and child. Xavier Dolan has found a language for that relationship and the unspoken horror, which is this:  no matter how devoted you are to your children, no matter how much you love them and are prepared to give everything for them, nothing can prepare you for the shock of the way they love you, the passionate way they adore you and nothing can help you live with the hopeless realisation that you fall horribly short of their perceptions, and the day(s) they work that out will damage them irreparably. It is the inescapable bind: you will let your children down, and you will scar them for life when you do.

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Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval) is a widower with an unruly fifteen year old son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD plus some other antisocial problems that became exacerbated by the death of his father a few years earlier. At the start of the film his mother is going to pick him up at an underage correctional facility that can no longer care for him, bit Die doesn’t care, because she feels ready to take on the challenge of her son, and besides, there is all that love between them, so together they can take on the world right? It isn’t long back at home, and Die is dealing with Steve’s theft, and his violent behaviour toward her, all always wrapped in the intense passion he feels for her that he does not have the skill to handle. This is a oedepus complex without restraint, and yet Dolan frames it in light and beautiful music and gentle dream like slow-mo sequences that give the passion Steve feels for his mother the integrity of the love a child has for the parent who cares for them, intensifying the bond beyond the tawdry assumptions of incest.

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In amongst all this furious intensity, comes Kyla (Suzanne Clement) a neighbor who has taken a sabbatical from high school teaching because of a personal tragedy of her own, and who is suffering from a shock induced hysteria that prevents her from being able to speak without stuttering. She befriends Die and Steve and because she is around all day anyway, agrees to help with Steve’s education while Die goes off and looks for work. The three form a close bond for several months as they each help each other through their very difficult times.

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The film opens with text on a screen that states in the not too distant future, the laws of Canada change so that custodians of unruly children can sign to have them institutionalised without a court order. We are told that somehow this will be something of concern to Die, but even though she refuses it initially, it hangs over the film, like an evil trap of a safety net, a leaden promise that Die doesn’t have to go through all of this for Steve if she doesn’t want to. But with a child as difficult as Steve, it all boils down to a daily choice to stay there, to keep hanging on through poverty and terrible problems that his deeply passionate love inevitably invite. Dolan uses his images and his performances to tantalise precisely the right mood, so that the viewer is swept up into his vision. This is not a subtle film, it throws everything at you, almost propaganda style in its relentlessness, and its central premise is not necessarily one we want to hear, but it is all there is to receive, and yet the enormity of the energy and passion behind the film encapsulate and engulf every piece of the viewing experience so that nothing is left outside of what Xavier Dolan wants you to feel.

Mommy is a truly magnificent film that can’t possibly be anything other than an enormous, fulfilling experience.

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