April 2015

Arts & Letters

The blazing heart

By Luke Davies
Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’

French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who was 20 when he made his bold debut feature I Killed My Mother (2009), has just turned 26. His new film, Mommy (in national release 9 April) – his fifth in six years – won the Jury Prize at Cannes, where it received a rapturous 13-minute standing ovation. The rapture is deserved, since the film is at times a revelation. For all its cocksure indulgence, for all that it manipulates us, for all its flirting on the edges of melodrama, it is dazzling, and bold, and accomplished: a singular and coherent aesthetic vision despite and not merely because of its director’s youth. (Orson Welles was also 26 when he made Citizen Kane, as was Paul Thomas Anderson when he made Boogie Nights, so you might say Dolan is in good company.)

The film imagines a Canada where the government introduces a law, the “S-14”, which stipulates that “the parent of a child with behavioural problems has, in a situation of financial distress, physical and/or psychological danger, the moral and legal right to put his child in the care of any public hospital, without due process of law”. “This is the story of Diane ‘Die’ Després,” a card tells us at the opening, “a woman whose fate appears to be intimately tied to this affair.”

Diane (Anne Dorval), in her mid 40s, is brassy, foul-mouthed and quick to anger. She has a habit of sexualising every encounter, and is angry that only a minute ago she was a young goddess. Her 15-year-old son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), is kicked out of the latest in a string of juvenile detention centres for being unmanageable and violent.

The director of the detention centre, washing her hands of Steve, asks Diane if she has heard about S-14. Diane looks murderously offended, but the director has just witnessed Steve light a fire that caused a boy to be badly burnt. “Loving people doesn’t save them,” she warns Diane. “Love has no say.”

Diane is determined to prove her wrong, and that determination, now delusional, now justified, is the spine of the film. “Where do we live now?” asks Steve. Diane brings him home to their new nondescript apartment, where most of the boxes are yet to be unpacked, with a plan to homeschool him. (Steve’s father, whose memory he idealises, died three years earlier.) Turmoil and discord, in a suffocating mix, will be the order of the day. Steve wants to be the man of the house, but is just a needy and overbearing boy. Diane wants to be both friend and mother but can’t, for a child like this. Mother and son are in constant conflict with each other, and with the world. When their conflict with the world gets them into trouble, they band together, undefeatable.

Steve has had many diagnoses: he’s a “disruptive confrontational” with ADHD, hyperactivity and an “attachment disorder”. Because he has so little of anything, he clings to fragments of nostalgia, setting out framed photos of his dad and unearthing the “Die & Steve Mix 4ever” CD his dad had once made for a Californian road trip, and which becomes the soundtrack to the film.

Mother and son interact mostly by shouting. We see how easily Steve turns from mischievous boy to dangerous threat, and we understand, without knowing backstory or specifics, why he was in a juvenile detention centre. Then their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a timid woman suffering from a chronic stutter, comes into their lives. Kyla leads a sterile, downtrodden life with her well-meaning but dull husband and daughter. Something in the tempestuous mother-and-son team across the road reignites a sense of life in her.

“Steve’s violent,” Diane explains to Kyla. “He’s a sweet boy deep down, loads of charisma, but when he blows a fuse, you’d best scram … You never get bored with Steve.” Kyla listens, fascinated, drawn in. At least this pair is alive.

Steve is a piece of work. He puts everyone on edge at all times. Pilon’s portrayal of a kind of toxic ADHD is stunning. Steve ranges from beautiful to menacing, from vulnerable to near-deranged in wild, unsettling arcs, but we never stop feeling his pain, however far beyond the pale his behaviour.

In that sense, Dolan seems to have created a youthful masterclass in maintaining a continuous, heightened, destabilising sense of tension and dread. And yet, even as its narrative feels so emotionally perilous, Mommy, as an aesthetic experience, is exquisite and assured. It’s a relief when Dolan slows the mania to breathe space and hope into certain scenes. For all that the film portrays conflict as incessant histrionics, here and there it suddenly swoops out of that conflict and into moments of transcendent beauty.

Dolan uses music both to soothe and disorient – as Paul Thomas Anderson did so brilliantly in Boogie Nights with the ominous, coke-weary drug robbery gone wrong, set to the classic-hits mindlessness of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’ and a lot of unsettling firecrackers. In Mommy, there’s a dance scene in the kitchen between Steve, Diane and Kyla, listening to a syrupy Céline Dion hit, that is wonderfully, hypnotically uncomfortable. Throughout the film the music continually shifts and swells, wrestling us, whenever Dolan deems it necessary, from our neutral perspective into the deeper consciousness of the characters.

Dolan’s decision to shoot in the extremely rare 1:1 aspect ratio, in which the frame is a perfect square, adds to this sense of intense subjectivity. “No distraction, no affectations are possible in such constricted space,” Dolan has said in explanation. “The character is our main subject, inescapably at the centre of our attention. Our eyes cannot miss him, her.” (Dolan has also stated that since the “Die & Steve Mix 4ever” is a kind of leitmotif for the film, the use of the 1:1 ratio finds an “additional echo” in the proportions of a CD cover image, which, over time, can leave such imprints on our memories and imaginations.)

Twice in the film, briefly, the image suddenly spreads to widescreen – at one oddly delightful instant, Steve breaks the fourth wall and peels the screen open with a cheeky grin. It’s at these moments that we begin to get a sense of Dolan’s methodology: we’ll be freed from the “constricted space” when there’s laughter and hope rather than conflict, when things are going well for an all-too-brief moment. In poignant contrast, the square screen is more representative of the narrowness of this life full of struggles. Steve has a fantasy that Kyla, who was a high-school teacher until her stutter became too chronic, will help him graduate high school – homeschooled, of course. After that he’ll apply to the Juilliard School in New York. (He dreams of being a dancer.) And then life will change. Such glorious optimism needs the widest screen, to let the colours in.

It’s hard to aim, without apparent irony, for melodrama, and to wring out of it genuine emotional experience. Douglas Sirk’s better films, while admirable and handsome, are very much products of their 1950s context, and it’s hard to watch them today without being struck by how much they seem like classy but overblown soap operas. For a contemporary melodrama to succeed, there seems to be an extra ingredient needed: call it a deranged quality, haunted by death or loss. (And perhaps throw in the conflict between hope and betrayal.) The two films that spring to mind when assessing these criteria are Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and this one. Bess (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves fears the loss of her faith, even as she careers towards her death; the audience fears the loss of her mind. In Mommy, Steve rages against the world, believing in one frozen moment – a mythically remembered California road trip – where peace descended.

As I watched the film I wondered: does it succeed in transcending its melodramatic specifics, since it’s so clearly willing to push them to their highest volume? Or is it all too much? And when Steve self-harms, how much do we care? For all Steve’s mad belligerence and reckless rowdiness, how much does Dolan give us entry into his deeper recesses?

Then on second viewing it clicked. I’m speaking not just of the film’s brilliantly clear voice and tone and style, which were largely apparent on first viewing, too – all that assurance and control, or rather, controlled chaos, all that dazzling, irrepressible energy. No, it was the realisation that Dolan has deliberately chosen not to give us access to Steve’s inner emotional journey, because that journey is peripheral, and would crowd out the true essence of the story.

Steve is all rage and action, uncontemplated. He’s the vehicle through which his mother must contemplate the deepest, most difficult decisions. The two leads share screen time, and both performances are electric. But it’s Diane who is the blazing centre of the film, and her love for Steve, which we experience as a kind of relentless tachycardiac anxiety, is its subject.            

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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