Having just announced his first English-language feature, Montréal-based director Xavier Dolan’s latest film Mommy acts as something of a long goodbye to his French-language output thus far. Like his debut I Killed My Mother, Mommy is based on a tempestuous mother-son relationship, like Heartbeats the film’s central relationship is altered by the presence of a third person and like Laurence Anyways the film represents an impossible love.
But Mommy is not mere rehashing, and indeed Dolan has shown with each film that he is not the kind of director who is content to repeat himself. The most noteworthy thing about Mommy is its use of instagram aspect ratio (1:1) which has the duel purpose of intensifying the action onscreen and presenting us with some beautiful album cover photography. But it is only one element in an emotionally layered film.
Set in an alternate reality in which the Canadian government has enacted a law which allows parents to commit their troublesome offspring to the care of the state, Mommy follows single mother Diane Després (Anne Dorval) and troublesome offspring Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pelon). Their relationship could almost be described as text-book Oedipal, but the old Freudianism doesn’t quite capture the strange surrogacy both characters represent for each other; Die who dresses like a teenager and Steve who rampages around the house like an abusive husband.
Into this mix comes Kyla (Suzanne Clément) whose own nuclear family is psychologically oppressing her. She finds a strange solace in the confused dynamics in Diane and Steve’s home that she can’t find with her own husband and young daughter. In a sense Kyla is the film’s moral linchpin, the one who plays it straight enough for us to relate to, but is weird enough to want to engage with her unbalanced neighbours.
Through Kyla we experience Steve and Diane’s relationship and begin to sympathise with them rather than see them has freaks. Here the impossible love comes into play, as Kyla is intrinsically linked to the fate of her family but is drawn into the Després family. Similarly Diane is stuck to her son whose bouts of rage threaten to tear the threesome apart, but whose mix of charm and obvious helplessness act like the support beams of a beautiful house that threatens to topple into the ocean in a heavy storm.
Whether Dolan has topped himself with this film is debatable (Laurence Anyways is a serious contender for top honours) but what’s clear is that Dolan, about to hit the age of 26, is one of the few directors currently working who can be considered a true experimenter. In an environment where many film-makers feel the pressure to repeat and refine – Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino being prime examples of such – a truly adventurous voice is something to be cherished. In cinemas 20 March 2015. Watch the trailer here.