When the Philadelphia Film Festival’s artistic director Michael Lerman introduced Mommy, he warned the sold-out crowd not to rush back to the projection booth and complain once the film started. “There’s nothing wrong,” explained Lerman. “The film was actually shot in an unusual aspect ratio.”
Unusual because the vast majority of modern films are screened in a 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the very rare throwback film using 4:3 — most recently employed in the black-and-white period film Ida and the flashbacks in Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
No one before Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan in Mommy had ever tried a 1:1, or square, aspect ratio.
“People have been trying to intellectualize the heck out of this,” Dolan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I just wanted to shoot portrait aspect ratio that would allow me to be very close to characters, avoid distractions to the left and right of the frame and have the audience look the characters right in the eye.”
Dolan — a 25-year-old wunderkind already in preproduction on his sixth feature film — first experimented with 1:1 when shooting a music video. He instantly became fascinated by how the square frames his actors’ faces and elicits what he believes is a unique emotional sincerity from his characters.
From his experience with the music video, Dolan grew convinced that the simple intimacy of the square frame was perfect for Mommy — the story of a working class mother (Anne Dorval) who recruits a neighbor (Suzanne Clement) with a speech impediment to home-school the unpredictably violent son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) she’s desperately trying to keep from being institutionalized.
“I know a lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, 1:1, how pretentious,” admits Dolan. “But for me, it seems a more humble and private format, a little more fitting to these lives we’re diving into. Cinemascope [2.35:1] would have been extremely pretentious and incompatible for Mommy. To try to get in that apartment and film these people in that aspect ratio would have been unseemly.”
Dolan scoffs at the interpretation that he was using the narrow frame to imprison his characters. He also shrugs off suggestions that the device is a nod to the boxed-in nature of Instagram photos and Vine videos, saying, if anything, he had “album covers” on the mind, indelible images that have “imprinted in our imaginations over time.”
He does widen the film — the image actually expands to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio — during two of the more hopeful moments in the story.
“I knew going in that I wanted one moment where the frame would break open and for the character to break free,” explains Dolan. “We loved it so much we did ended up doing it twice.”
The bold visual trick, according to THR‘s reviewer Stephen Dalton, received a rare round of midmovie applause from the hard-to-please audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where Mommy shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard‘s Goodbye to Language back in May.
The square aspect ratio was not without its hindrances though. Dolan says there were certain shots and lenses he intended to use that proved impossible once he got on set. “My director of photography, Andre Turpin, grew increasingly frustrated throughout the shoot,” Dolan recalls. As a result, Dolan relied even more on single shots of his characters.
But, according to the filmmaker, it ended up having an added benefit. “For the few moments — I believe there were only five in the entire film — [the three main characters] are in the frame together, it becomes very noticeable,” he says, adding that those scenes become “that much more powerful as a result.”
Mommy opens on Jan 23 and is being released Roadside Attractions. Check out the trailer below.