Mommy is a film that’s striking for many reasons. But what’s immediately apparent is its use of a 1.1 aspect ratio. It’s a perfect square, not only framing the characters and focusing our attention, but also suggesting inescapable claustrophobia. For one brief moment towards the end the screen expands – a dream of happiness and freedom, of redemption, of hope. Yet it remains, ultimately a dream.
Hope is a key theme of the film in what is a striking, daring and highly provocative narrative. The Oedipus complex has provided influence for countless filmmakers, yet in Mommy it manifests in disturbing fashion. Diane (Anne Dorval) is our protagonist, a desperate mother forced to look after her violent, ADHD-suffering son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) when he is removed from a detention centre in French-speaking Canada. The film explores their relationship as, with the assistance of their naïve, stammering and inquisitive neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), they attempt to move on with their lives.
There’s no doubt that life would be easier without Steve. Eccentric and highly sexualised, he flips unpredictably from dangerous and abusive, to misunderstood. His love for his mother manifests in unsettling ways; for one, he never actually calls her ‘mommy’ – in fact he calls her anything but and only seems to respond to violence. Pilon’s performance is humorous yet horrifying. Diane is hardly a role model though. Foul language, sexuality and alcohol feature heavily in her life – she is comical yet fearless and devoted to her troubled son. Somehow their dysfunctional partnership works, though it eventually takes its toll on her with dire, heart-breaking consequences.
Hope is ever present though, with director Xavier Dolan utilising a warm colour palette to enrich each location. It’s a visual style that contrasts with the shocking narrative and the intoxicating performances therein.
The use of music, too, is striking, though this is the film’s only major misstep. Songs such as Dido’s White Flag, Counting Crows’ Colourblind and Oasis’ Wonderwall are included almost in their entirety, which gives the film the feeling of a pop video. This only seems anachronistic to the drama, jarringly removing the audience from the film’s world. Ending with Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die provides a laughable, clichéd climax.
Mommy remains a striking view of the struggles of motherhood – a tough watch that pushes the audience to thought-provoking extremes.
Watch: Mommy screens at the London Film Festival.