The mother-child bond is one of the ancestral themes that has run through the history of humankind. Over the centuries, this bond has found in art a fertile ground to express itself in its many forms. Just think of the world of painting and the almost countless representations in Christian iconography of the Madonna and Child. In the same way, literature has continuously pushed the boundaries of the description of the mother-child bond. One cannot help but think of the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, Sophocles‘ masterpiece, and its influence on psychoanalytic theory with the Oedipus complex. Or how the mother-son conflict is the central theme of cinematic classics such as Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960). Mommy, the fifth movie by Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, adds new viewpoints to this theme.
To be fair, exploring the mother-son bond is a constant in Dolan’s movies. After all, his directorial debut occurred when he was just 19 years old with I Killed My Mother (2009), which he also wrote, produced, and starred in. The movie, partly autobiographical, follows the troubled relationship between a son and his mother. It won three awards at the Directors’ Fortnight program of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. Mommy seems to follow this thread in a more intimate and mature way.
A true enfant prodige, Xavier Dolan, born in 1989, has directed eight movies so far. Mommy debuted at the 67th Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize. It won also Best Foreign Film at the 40th César Awards. Dolan is also the screenwriter, producer, costume designer, and editor of the movie.
A brave mother and a troubled son
Canada, the present day. The local government establishes the S-14 law, allowing parents of troubled minors to place their children in a mental institution in case of emergency, bypassing fundamental judicial rights. Mommy tells the story of a family inevitably connected to this law. Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval) is a widowed single mother in her 40s. She finds herself with full-time custody of her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve is a troubled and unpredictable boy who suffers from Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. As they struggle to both make ends meet and improve their inflamed love-hate relationship, they find a helping hand in new neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément). Kyla is a teaching mother on sabbatical who has developed a stutter and agrees to tutor Steve. Together, they strive to overcome their personal boundaries and ghosts as they aspire to a brighter future.
That’s not all. The director also adds a subtext of social criticism that runs throughout the story with the aim of enlightening the viewer on the social gap between poor and rich families.
Directing and photographing Mommy
Xavier Dolan proves to have a strong grasp of the use of cinematic language. Indeed, he manages to use the camera to convey in visual form the wide range of emotions and feelings that run through the relationship between mother and son. His style of direction is very conscious. It focuses on the performance of the three main characters. With anticipation, he supervises even their smallest gestures, in an attempt to give the viewer a sense of authenticity and a close and steady connection with the emotions of each scene. As a matter of fact, he often opts to move the camera closer to the bodies, using close-ups that let the viewer perceive even the unspoken.
All of the above combines with André Turpin‘s bright, colorful, and saturated cinematography full of contrasts. In the end, what results is a delicate tale of bewitching aesthetics that is very reminiscent of Terrence Malick‘s style and Wong Kar-wai‘s In the Mood for Love (2000).
The aspect ratio
Certainly one of the most significant and intriguing choices was shooting the movie with a 1:1 aspect ratio. That is, Dolan opted to shrink the screen, squeezing the image into a perfect square between two black sidebands. The final effect is a strong sense of intimacy. This is because this peculiar aspect ratio results in only one person being on screen for most of the time. In addition, the intimacy of the square also effectively conveys the dimension of isolation and incomprehension in which the characters find themselves. It also gives the chance to go even deeper into the characters’ secret inner world, forcing the viewer to look them straight in the eye. Lastly, another uncommon choice is that during the movie the image expands twice to a canonical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This, according to Dolan, is to highlight the characters’ moments of happiness and freedom.
Mommy is not the only movie to use a different aspect ratio from the standard one. Indeed, other directors experimented with different ratios, such as Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Sam Esmail in the TV show Homecoming (2018).
The use of music
Dolan’s filmography also stands out for its use of music. Mommy features a variety of songs – with tunes by Dido, Craig Armstrong, Oasis, Eiffel 65, and Lana Del Rey, among others – which strongly support the key points of the story, mirroring the characters’ feelings and voicing their thoughts. Above all, Mommy uses diegetic music, which thereby acts as a real narrative force and as a trigger for interaction and action between the characters. This is the case, for instance, of the scene built up around the song On ne change pas by Canadian singer Celine Dion. Or even when Steve sings Andrea Bocelli‘s Vivo per lei, dedicating the song to his mother.
That’s not all, as Dolan stated that he wrote the entire screenplay after he heard the song Experience by Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi. Dolan also dedicated to this song a whole scene in the movie.
Mommy succeeds in standing out in the narrative landscape about the mother-son bond. It successfully emerges in the movie scene of recent years. And it does so mainly thanks to its intimate and realistic approach and the underlying social criticism featured in the movie.