Once every few years, one will come across a work of art so breathtaking, so gorgeous and so perfect that it defies categorization. The experience of viewing Xavier Dolan’s ecstatic, outrageous, flamboyant and above all, masterful new film, “Mommy,” unequivocally fits that description. For lack of a better term, it will have to settle for simply being called a masterpiece.
Not only is it the best film of the year, it is the best film of the decade so far (only possibly rivaled by Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”), if not one of the greatest films this well-versed film nut has ever seen. And if you think my statements are immaturely hyperbolic, perhaps they only reflect the same infectious spirit embodied by the film that shamelessly and melodramatically lays its emotions and cinematic techniques bare on the screen for the audience to embrace wholeheartedly (or, for the more reserved pseudo-intellectual, to reject).
While “Mommy” is not a film for every conventional, logically-minded audience member, it is a film for every person who has a heart, a soul and a willingness to indulge his or her emotions to the point that common sense falls by the wayside. The elements are all present for such an experience; the viewer need only accept them as such.
To briefly lay out the premise, the film concerns a working-class mother, Die (Anne Dorval, whose performance holds a stronger grip than a tightened vice), and her struggling attempts to raise her psychotic, ADHD-afflicted teenage son, Steve (the painfully real yet theatrically stunning Antoine-Olivier Pilon). It goes on to explore the mutually beneficial triangular relationship that forms between them and a neighbor with a speech impediment, Kyla (the equally compelling Dolan regular, Suzanne Clement, whose eyes say more than most actresses can with a whole monologue).
But no more on the plot—for while it is intellectually complex in its own right, by comparison it is merely a springboard for a plethora of brilliant acting, beyond fabulous production design and costumes, completely creative cinematography, and any other overwhelmingly positive attribute that can be given to a film.
Indeed, all of the saturated, stylized choices in the film (to paraphrase Dolan when I met him at the Film Society of Lincoln Center) aren’t meant as an ironic contrast to the characters’ dismal existences, but rather, to sincerely express the vibrancy with which those characters see the world. These are losers who dress themselves as if they were winners. If Die wants to wear a pink shirt and gold chain meant for a teenage girl, it is because she truly sees herself in this youthful fashion.
If Dolan wants to illuminate Steve jumping on the bed in super-slow-motion in a non-diegetic orange glow, it is because he truly sees his characters in this epic effervescence. Dolan said that sometimes he would light a scene with a pink or an orange light not because it made sense to the content of the scene (i.e. because it’s sunset), but rather, to randomly but genuinely express himself as a true artist does. And boy, does he succeed with flying colors (no pun intended)!
As has been discussed ad nauseam since its premiere at Cannes, the film is uniquely shot in the never-before-seen aspect ratio of 1:1 (which creates a perfect square, and recalls the shape of an Instagram photo). Dolan displays these constant black bars that take up nearly half the screen in order to create a relentlessly claustrophobic space for his characters. He also ensures that they are imbued with a sense of portraiture, given that their faces are many times framed so that no background can be seen to distract from the human emotions on display.
Finally, Dolan uses the ratio in a minimalistic fashion in order to call attention to the importance of the two key, minute-long moments in the film where he opens the frame up to the wider, more traditional aspect ratio of 1.85:1—though to spoil the content of such sequences would be to criminally diminish their impact. To put it in layman’s terms—simply be sure to pay attention to when the black bars on the side of the screen open up, and more dramatically, to when they close back in. The use of the 1:1 gimmick alone secures the film’s place in cinematic history as a first, to say nothing of the severe impact it entails which cements it as legendary.
The soundtrack—a curated selection worthy of Tarantino and Scorsese—comprises of cheesy late-’90s/early-2000s hits that are deliciously used to great swooning effect (not even ironically). I can’t prize one musical sequence over the other – they’re all brilliant, from a let-the-good-times-roll montage scored by Oasis’ immortal “Wonderwall,” to a shocking use of Eiffel 65’s crappy but poppy “Blue (Da Ba Dee),” to a haunting evocation of teenage youth underlined by Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” (and don’t even get me started on his climactic use of Lana Del Rey’s “Born To Die”). Whether you’re shaking your head at the mediocrity of song choices, or you’re smiling with nostalgia—it is precisely that surprise or confirmation of familiarity that will allow for those songs to add a powerful crescendo to what happens on screen.
For the last few years, I have been enthusiastically telling everybody who will listen about the genius of the ridiculously young 25-year-old Dolan (his third film, “Laurence Anyways,” also ranks among my top five of the decade so far). With this film—this tour de force—he will hopefully finally gain the recognition he unquestionably deserves. At such a young age, he has created a film of a quality most directors never achieve in their entire careers.
Only time will tell whether he peaks now as did Orson Welles with “Citizen Kane,” or, more likely (his four other films are all of A-level caliber), whether his unimaginable best is still yet to come. But for now, it is the duty of every self-respecting cinephile to seek out the unforgettable experience that is “Mommy.”