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By Adam Nayman
In 2014, in a fictional Canada, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature Mommy doesn’t get much attention at all…
It’s a fine line between utopia and dystopia. To say that the world (of cinema) would be a better place without Xavier Dolan might be pushing it. But would it really be worse than the current state of affairs, where this slender talent stands taller and casts a longer shadow, after five films and at the age of 25, than any Canadian director since…well, since who, exactly? Atom Egoyan played his hand slow, cards close to the chest, for more than a decade before the world outside the Greater Toronto Area really took notice; David Cronenberg made sick-fuck films that got him threatened with eviction (and worse) en route to becoming a national treasure. This year at Cannes, however, it was the precocious Dolan who led our nation’s heroic trio, and what’s more, he was positioned shoulder to shoulder with Jean-Luc Godard (not that JLG was actually there to stand for the comparison). As journalists from Canada and elsewhere clamoured that Dolan should have won the Palme d’Or, there was a swelling of national cinematic pride that for once seemed to transcend the English/French divide (Adieu au langage).Here, finally, was one Canadian movie—and moviemaker—to rule them all.
How good a filmmaker is Xavier Dolan? This has been the question since the much-hyped arrival of J’ai tué ma mère (2009), a literally adolescent melodrama (selected for the Quinzaine when its writer-director-star was all of 19 years old) about the difficult relationship between a headstrong single mom and her hyperactive teenaged son which Dolan has now essentially remade in his new, Montréal-set Mommy,except that this time he’s cast a surrogate in his own place opposite Anne Dorval (whose performances in both films are the best things about them). Palpably undisciplined in a way that suggested a filmmaker not yet grown into his talent, like an eager, energetic puppy wobbling around enthusiastically on oversized paws, J’ai tué ma mère promised plenty and delivered less; underneath that scratchy surface was a pretty tidy pathos play. Still, that film looked like a masterpiece when measured against Les amours imaginaires (2010), a self-infatuated tale of three-way amour fou without much going on in it at all; stripped of all its Wong-ish slow-motion, it would have been a short film. By contrast, the much-acclaimed Laurence Anyways (2012) was pompously overlong: inside this bloated tale of a woman trapped in a man’s body (very well played by Melvil Poupaud) there was a healthier, less obese melodrama yearning to breathe free.
Last year’s Tom à la ferme promised a refinement of Xavier-Mania, but while the film (adapted from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard) was in many ways a change of pace, the problems remained, rooted in the filmmaking itself. If in his first three films Dolan was obviously trying to outdo himself, Tom saw him play-acting at self-effacement (as much as possible when he literally played the lead role) and maturity. The leaner narrative, the darker tone, the relative paucity of pop-music cues (except for one admittedly funny usage of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”)—these were all signifiers of an artist manfully growing up, and Bouchard’s Québécois Gothic scenario had the makings of a strong thriller. For the most part, though, Tom à la ferme was frustratingly slack, filled with missed beats and opportunities on top of all the obvious symbolism. The Dark Knight-derived aspect-ratio trickery (enter Xavier Nolan) called attention to itself rather than ratcheting up the tension; watching the film’s final chase scene alongside the somewhat similar climax of Alain Guiraudie’s inestimably superior L’inconnu du lac (2013) illustrates the difference between the mere idea of style and truly precise, masterful directing, blocking, and editing.
Which brings us to Mommy,and another question: If Xavier Dolan was not a great filmmaker before, does this one finally get him there after a long, arduous, soul-searching journey of five years?
The first image: a pair of shorts, hanging from a clothesline—an invitation to the haters to go ahead and eat them. Recall that the filmmaker told the critic from The Hollywood Reporter to “kiss [his] ass”after the magazine published an unimpressed review of Tom à la ferme, and suddenly the idea of Dolan vengefully offering up his dirty laundry for delectation isn’t so far-fetched. But as an opening shot it’s clever enough, introducing the idea that this is a movie about a woman, Diane (Dorval), who is literally and figuratively cleaning up after her teenage progeny, a wife-beater-clad skidmark named Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), whose greatest talent is making messes. Like most of the shots in Mommy, this first image is framed head-on and dead-centre, which is typically all that Dolan’s decision to shoot in an Instagram-derived frame allows. While it initially seems like a shame to constrict the excellent cinematographer André Turpin (who worked so well with Dolan’s spiritual predecessor Denis Villeneuve) to this squared-off format, the cramped compositions do work to establish a serviceable sense of claustrophobia for this story about close-quarters combat.
More problematically, however, the aspect ratio mirrors the film’s dramaturgy, which is similarly and strictly 1:1. Never a subtle filmmaker, here Dolan doubles (and triples, and quadruples) down on the basic strategy of J’ai tué ma mère, which is to have two damaged characters fly at each other in rage at regular intervals, and to use the brief spaces in between their arguments to take the measure of their true, wounded natures. This is a vey dangerous way to make a movie, as it can have the effect of devaluing the story’s emotional currency: when nearly every scene is inflated it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth anything, and one begins to suspect that it’s all pretty cheap. It’s not as if Dolan is a judicious storyteller: introduced stumbling out of her dented driver’s-side door after a suburban-street smash-up, Diane (whose nickname is “Die”—D-I-E, get it?) is dazed and confused right off the top; meanwhile, all of Steve’s early scenes are paced like car crashes, with him running his motor mouth at a million miles an hour until he finally collides with some immovable object, including a black cab driver whom he hysterically bawls out as a “macaque.”
Basically, Steve is a nightmare, a hulked-up and even unrulier version of Dolan’s own character in J’ai tué ma mère. But the casting here of the underwear-ad beautiful Pilon suggests that we’re supposed to see him as beautiful as well, and not simply from Diane’s possessive, implicitly quasi-incestuous point of view. In lieu of hallucinatory fantasy (which might have worked better), Dolan adopts an objective, omniscient-yet-intimate perspective that is less about balancing his narrative than controlling audience sympathies down to the millimetre. It’s easy enough to say that Dolan “loves his characters,” which is a calorie-free form of film criticism that creates humanist hierarchies that are in and of themselves exclusionary and reductive. Love is a prerequisite for filmmaking, and if, as Love Story (and Mommy) teaches us, it’s also never having to say you’re sorry, why should any filmmaker—from Stanley Kubrick right on down to Alex Ross Perry—apologize for offering their creations (and their audiences) a slightly colder shoulder than their warmer and fuzzier peers? What’s irritating about Mommy is not its theme (which is, basically, “love”), but that Dolan insists we love his characters as much as he does, in the exact same way, no questions asked. This pushiness is exactly what makes the movie an overwhelming emotional experience for some and insufferable for others.
It is by now an established fact Dolan that drenches his movies (even Tom à la ferme) in signifiers of tackiness, a French-Canadian strain of dated pop culture and fashion referred to en français as quétaine.To wit, the main emblem of Mommy is a golden necklace spelling out the film’s title, and gifted by Steve to Diane in advance of their biggest blow-out fight; following a five-minute stretch of uninterrupted screaming, swearing, and choking, the fact that the latter re-emerges proudly wearing her new bling indicates her Mama-Bear pride in both her persona and her borderline-personality-disorder progeny. And it’s not just Diane who owns the necklace: it’s Dolan, who pays obsessive attention to his characters’ wardrobes and musical tastes, possibly because of his own role in their bestowal. Sometimes, this shared custody is charming, as in the interlude where Diane, Steve, and their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément) partake in a group dance to a Céline Dion torch song (Carl Wilson would surely appreciate the unrepentant voguing on display). But when Dolan shoots Steve pirouetting on a stolen shopping cart for five minutes to the tune of the Counting Crows’ “Colorblind,” or Steve clowning around over top of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” or Steve throwing a tantrum backed by Eiffel 65 (with all of these songs blared in their entirety), it’s exhausting in a way that goes beyond counterintuitive into the realm of aural torture.
Even if one is willing to see (and hear) the Now That’s What I Call Music roll call of the soundtrack as endearingly dorky in accordance with Dolan’s (or Steve’s) ’90s upbringing, the fact is that Dolan actually doesn’t extend nearly the same generosity to his whole ensemble. In one of this 140-minute film’s few actual plot points, Diane contrives a dinner date with a single fortysomething male neighbour who works as a lawyer, hoping that he can help smooth over an assault charge Steve picked up during his time at school. The trio end up at a karaoke bar, where Steve picks an Andrea Bocelli number and is homophobically catcalled by a bunch of ugly townies—a taste of his own medicine after the racist encounter with the cab driver, except that Dolan lingers over it to the point where our hero’s violent response is entirely justified. Similarly, Steve is totally in the right to suspect Diane’s neighbour, not only because he’s a broadly written and acted caricature of beta-male vanity, but also because he says he loves Scarface and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which are apparently unforgivable sins despite the fact that the latter would fit in nicely in a film that contains what feels like a half-dozen pop-music montages.
Where Mommy really starts to get annoying, though, is when it finally begins to pay off its bizarre title card, which describes a “fictional Canada” where controversial legislation has been passed allowing parents to deposit disturbed children in government institutions without fear of reprisal. Leaving aside the fact that Dolan could have made basically exactly the same movie without introducing this element of speculative fiction into the equation—the scene where Diane drives Steve to the slate-grey institution and watches, agonized, as he’s chased and tasered by the staff is free of any pesky specifics about what sort of place it is—this attempt at social commentary and/or national portraiture nevertheless reveals something about the director’s worldview. Xavier Dolan is hardly the first and won’t be the last heralded young filmmaker to trade in solipsism for its own sake, and the arrogance he’s displayed as an interviewee shouldn’t come to bear too heavily on criticisms of the films themselves. Yet it’s telling that the first overt instance of politics in his movies is vague, underdeveloped, and self-serving: the implication is that any law that would permit a parent to cut ties with their child is unnatural and appalling.
And yet I wonder how people with troubled or mentally disabled children—not movie-gorgeous ones like Steve, who is consistently romanticized as a kind of noble savage—feel about Dolan summarily dismissing while simultaneously refusing to actually address the sorts of systems and institutions that Canadians are uniquely fortunate enough to have access to. Dolan probably doesn’t mean the scenes of a straitjacketed, medicated Steve to be especially realistic, but if they’re fantasies they’re facile at best, yet another case of this filmmaker’s convenient sense of abstraction when the stories of his films take him six inches outside his comfort zone. In fact, most of Mommy,from its determinedly underpopulated cast (Kyla’s husband and child are almost entirely MIA, and neither Diane or Steve have any other friends to speak of) to its selfie-sized aspect ratio, is so cut off from reality—and any interest in other people—as to feel like a missive from a very different “fictional Canada.” Even with its teasing scenes of mother-son attraction (which it never quite confronts in the end) and bubblegum-punk creative sensibility, Mommy is hardly out of place in Harperland.
So again, a question: If Xavier Dolan is not a great—and arguably not even a particularly good—filmmaker, how to account for the enormous international acclaim of his work, of which Mommy feels like an early culmination? It’s partially to do with that love/hate equivalence, which for now falls more widely on the love-it side of the divide, possibly because Dolan’s films have more zip than a lot of what comes out of Canada (and even Québec) and thus have been seized on by critics and programmers as signs of life for a national cinema that had to an extent flatlined in the mid-2000s. It’s partially to do with Dolan’s age and the irresistible narrative hook of the boy wonder, which is why James Franco (who is too old to be Dolan’s evil American twin; he’s more of an avuncular bad influence, like Alien in Spring Breakers) gets so much press as well. And, it must be said, it’s partially—and maybe even mostly—because Dolan’s shamelessness at fastening his hiply unfashionable movies together with hot buttons and then pushing them as hard as he can has a genuine effect (and affect) on viewers. Dolan has gotten a lot of hype, but it’s not hype that’s making audiences cry and cheer. I saw the movie in Karlovy Vary amidst a throng of twentysomethings who seemed delighted and overwhelmed by the whole thing: by Diane and Steve’s screaming matches; by the script’s stacked emotional deck; by the moments where the image goes widescreen to underline supposedly expansive emotions; by the unbelievably transparent and bathetic dream sequence where Mommy imagines her son straightening up and flying right (even transformed in her fantasies into Herr Director himself) before she comes to her senses and carts him off to the loony bin; even by the musical stylings of Dido, who will hopefully enjoy her incoming royalties.
The last question: Is it possible that Xavier Dolan actually is a great filmmaker, and those of us who believe that he is not are wasting our time seeing the movies (because we know we’ll hate them) and our breath on criticizing them? And, besides wasting our time, are we not also being perhaps a trifle self-important in trying the case at all? It’s not as if these movies have set the national box office on fire, and Dolan is still not a household name on the order of David Cronenberg, or even a well-known studio hand like Denis Villeneuve, the latter of whom he may yet follow to Hollywood (Cronenberg having really still only gone there, onscreen, in Maps to the Stars). If he gets to those benchmarks and becomes a superstar, that might even be a good thing for Canadian cinema in general, since it creates more interest, at home and abroad, in trying to suss out the next Xavier Dolan, and maybe finding somebody even better in the bargain.
This is all stuff beyond the films, however, and it’s the films themselves that should matter, at least when trying to answer the question of whether and why this filmmaker, or any filmmaker, matters. And it’s the films themselves—Mommy included and perhaps especially—that tell me, at least, that Dolan matters in a way that’s not especially positive, that make me feel watchful and anxious, and that make me want to say something about it instead of taking the path of least resistance and saying, à la Cannes, to each his or her own cinema. I can’t leave well enough alone, and so I will say, along with the great pop sage Dido:
I will go down with this ship / And I won’t put my hands up and surrender. / There will be no white flag above my door.