Unless you’ve recently been binge-watching all of the hot messes involved in Hollywood’s Annual Grand Carnival of Self-Congratulation (aka the Oscars), subsequently rendering you incapable of seeing real cinematic masterpieces beyond the Best Foreign Film category, chances are, you’ll know that a film called Mommy is out this month. You’ll also know that the Oscars failed to nominate this Canadian feature, probably because, despite the film being spoken in Québécois-inflected French, Canada’s just hanging out next door and doesn’t seem so egregiously foreign. And anyone with a perfectly functional common sense would observe that Mommy is, in fact, better than all the movies nominated this year. And yes – that includes Birdman.
Blot the American film industry off the map; Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature film has been the champagne toast of international prestige, garlanded with the Jury Prize in Cannes’ 67th edition last year alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language). Arguably it deserved the Palme d’Or over that rohypnol-induced snoozefest Winter Sleep (Jane Campion and her jury will duly regret this faux pas for ever), but we must concede that it’s not very often we get to see a strapping twentysomething whippersnapper being acclaimed alongside the 84-year old godfather of French New Wave, let alone being mentioned in the same reverential breath. Elsewhere, it swept the Canadian Academy Awards by storm, winning nine awards and giving us one more reason to love Canadians even more.
There’s no denying the importance of accolades, as any self-respecting industry should acknowledge artistic and critical triumphs, but throughout Mommy‘s blazing 139 minutes, all awards feel inadequate. You can shower it with all the golden trophies and glitter and stardust – it doesn’t distract us from the truth that Dolan’s film has won something better: our hearts. He’s made a searing, soaring, hyper-emotional paean to motherhood that’s part-Almodóvar, part-Fassbinder, and yet vibrantly pulsating with Dolan’s very own virtuoso dramaturgy and knowing technical command.
Mommy might be the greatest cinematic statement on maternal love sice Almodóvar’s Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) and Bong Joon-ho’s Madeo (Mother), encapsulating in its brazenly rarefied, boxed-in 1:1 aspect ratio the megalithic yet heartbreakingly intimate trials and tribulations of nurture and the indomitable love of a mother for her severely ADHD-ridden son, a gathering storm who sends violent tremors throughout their lives at the most inopportune, unpredictable moments.
This push and pull of love and resentment, this tug of war and peace between these two forces of nature, is at the core of Dolan’s picture. Their unbearable sadness and pain are squeezed shut into the diminutive frame of perspective and their rare moments of joy and dreams of escape are, ingeniously, laid out in glorious, format-defying widescreen. This is the first time in my entire existence that an aspect ratio shift has brought tears to my eyes while at the same time inspiring the ecstatic urge to stand up and laud in pure, unadulterated elation.
By now you must have heard of the legendary event at the Cannes Film Festival when an entire cinema full of critics altogether burst into applause as soon as the frame widened and took everyone’s breath away. It’s a cinematic technique executed with startling emotional amplitude. Dolan’s triumvirate of vivid characters – the unflappable, juicy-couture-clad mother Die, her ferocious, unhinged son Steve and their psychologically suppressed neighbour Kyla – all lead complicated, tormented lives trapped within the limits of the frame so when Dolan broadens the scope, the rush of aching, incalculable euphoria swells across the screen, mixed with a certain sense of sadness and the reality that this transient moment of happiness is either illusory or unattainable.
Not many filmmakers today are able to comprehensively infuse style and substance, and Dolan’s coup de cinema is arguably comparable to the achievements of his French New Wave forebears, back during the days when Godard was combining narrative jump-cuts and colour-grading techniques with cinematic and socio-political context, and Truffaut was pushing the conventions of framing and the emotional structure of characterisation. Dolan does something equally important, using his aspect ratio style to unexpectedly existential effect. Don’t mistake this as hyperbole – yes, Dolan may be young but his age shouldn’t dictate what capabilities, limits and boundaries he’s able or unable to push. He puts directors twice his age and quadruple his filmography to shame, and makes any millennial hipster with a camera and ambitions of stardom look like a pretentious, talentless brat.
With Mommy, Dolan has come into his stride, his own legitimate brand of sophisticated and ebullient cinema rivalling the works of the world’s greatest directors, dead or alive. In his debut film J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) – undertaking for the first time the theme of a fractured mother-son relationship, which he beautifully subverts into fierce and ostensibly Oedipal abstraction in Mommy – and his follow-up, the Jules et Jim-esque Les amours imaginaire (Heartbeats), Dolan has shown undeniable prodigious promise and painfully hipster-ish affectations. But it’s in the magnificent existential odyssey Laurence Anyways and supremely controlled psychodrama Tom at the Farm that this enfant terrible has matured into a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.
Now, with Mommy, Dolan has evolved from precocious dramatist to cinematic firecracker, creating an explosive emotional epic rarely seen in this day and age of lifeless, automated moviemaking. He’s just turned 26 at the time of writing, a fact that will only make the rest of us feel ancient and underachieving. Call him whatever you like – prodigy, wünderkind, enfant terrible, hot young bastard son of cinephilia – you’ll be hard pressed to deny that he is one of our brightest present and future purveyors of compelling, dazzlingly artistic cinema.