As the Cannes Film Fest nears its close, one of the last major films to screen in competition is Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan‘s latest, teasingly called “Mommy.” Exuberant, unpredictable and unconventional, “Mommy” pulls you into a relationship between mother and son that has long since ceased being a healthy one.
This is not unfamiliar territory for the 25-year-old filmmaker, who seems endlessly obsessed with the oppressive, irresistible icon of Mother. (The title of his first movie was “I Killed My Mother.”) Even so, much of this film moves beyond that relationship dynamic into a stylized world of human behavior as entertaining as it is revealing. Dolan’s camera springs to life, and in an instant it almost feels as though a new school of cinema is being born.
Overtly sexual, sometimes campy, bitchy, funny — Dolan’s writing has a unique thumbprint that he’s already put on films like 2010’s “Heartbeats” and 2012’s “Laurence Anyways.” He takes you on a wild ride, dives and dips wildly into a claustrophobic world of almost-incest, mommy lust, mommy disgust and an exploration what happens when troubled parents can’t control the troubled kids they’ve raised.
“Mommy” follows the story of single mother Diane (Anne Dorval) and her unstable son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who somehow form a bond with their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). At first, the mommy-lust jokes are kind of funny, with Steve slapping his mother’s ass and referencing her provocative attire. Kyla is drawn to Steve, for reasons unknown.
Anyone watching this might rightly feel a tad confused: a high-school boy hanging out with two older women who care for him, home school him, laugh and party with him. They seem to have found a happy, healthy family balance, and yet this dynamic is anything but.
Steve is trouble, and Pilon is fantastic as an uncorked young man who taunts older women and relates to them on unsettling levels. As violent and often loathsome as Steve may be, Pilon brings a palpable vulnerability to the role reminiscent of Brando or James Dean.
But the real star of the film is Anne Dorval, a frontrunner for the best actress award at Cannes. In her hot pants and platform heels, with her ubiquitous cigarette, false eyelashes, frosty lipstick and acrylic nails, Dorval is the kind of woman who is a long way from abandoning her sexuality.
But her love for her son must always be colored by her own inability to control her own volatile temper. She lashes out, he lashes out and before long someone has to go to the hospital. Their love is undeniable but inappropriate.
Dolan delights in flirting with the edges of incest, asking us from the start to decide for ourselves if there is going to be something sexual between them.
As mothers we form intimate attachments with our young – so intimate, in fact, that often the love bond between mother and child overwhelms both sides. A mother’s love can be so strong it leaves no room for any other kind of love. To be a mother, as every mother knows, is to understand why you came equipped with so many different gears and coping mechanisms.
The love between a mother and son — especially that of a single parent and an older child — can become so intense that the two might continue to live out their lives that way and be perfectly content. But there’s sometimes a darker area that hardly anyone talks about unless it’s on a porn site. Oedipus went there, so did Hamlet, so did Freud — the idea that some boys want to make it with their mothers is the eternal stuff that therapy sessions are made on.
The most surprising thing about the film isn’t the three-way character dynamic. And it isn’t Dolan’s marvelous choice of music that reflects the era of the mother’s own youth and relaxes its structure to a dreamlike state.
No, the most surprising thing is how Dolan plays with the conventions of cinema – the size of the frame, for instance, or the angles used to convey mood, or the flash-forwards that play out like broken dreams, lulling you into a kind of ecstasy before cruelly reeling you back to reality. The film bounds back and forth between these two orbits, bringing light and life on the one hand, and desperation on the other. At one point the Cannes audience burst into spontaneous applause at the way Dolan simply rewrote how to use the size of the frame.
At the ripe old age of 25, with five movies and four trips to Cannes under his belt, Dolan already has a reputation as a cinematic wunderkind. The baggage he brings with him to every new film gets heavier and heavier. Orson Welles was 24 when he made “Citizen Kane,” which sets the bar enormously high for any young filmmaker who is pulled violently along by a hunger to shatter the conventions that were laid down before him.
To watch a film written and directed by Dolan is to immerse oneself completely in his fever dream. That dream remains fascinating in its fearless reach across boundaries and its desire to tear down convention and start anew, and by the driving force of glam vulgarity that runs throughout.
The first thing people will ask you upon exiting one of Dolan’s films is, “How does it stack up against his others?” He is very likely headed for that familiar wall when many critics may never want him to evolve past his first early films, and never think he will top “Laurence Anyways” or “Heartbeats.”
And yet, Dolan will likely be remembered as one of the most influential filmmakers of his time, his footprints not yet measured, his impact not fully seen — not for years, not until the myth that his best films are behind him can be extinguished. He’s 25. He just made one of the best films at the Cannes film festival. There is nothing about Xavier Dolan to indicate that his best is already behind him.