'Mommy': Cannes Review

'Mommy,' Xavier Dolan (Competition)
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Quebecois director Dolan has the strange distinction of being at once a wunderkind (he's still just 25) and a Cannes veteran. Mommy is his first competition entry but marks his fourth visit to Cannes, following the Critics' Week bow for his 2009 debut I Killed My Mother and Un Certain Regard entries Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways. The plotline of Mommy is pure Dolan, focusing on the mother-son relationship, in this case a widowed single mom raising her violent son alone who finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself between the two, resulting in unforeseen consequences. (Sales: eOne)

From queer to maternity.

Competing for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, this explosively emotional portrait of a troubled mother-son relationship is 25-year-old director Xavier Dolan's most substantial work to date.

CANNES – The flamboyantly coiffed Quebecois writer-director who put the auteur into hauteur, Xavier Dolan has enjoyed a sensational career rise over the last five years, going from teenage actor to Cannes Competition contender at the ridiculously young age of 25. Dolan's fondness for operatic, style-saturated histrionics onscreen and tetchy narcissism in person tends to divide critics and juries.

But Dolan's fifth feature feels like a strong step forward, striking his most considered balance yet between style and substance, drama-queen posturing and real heartfelt depth. A lusty character study of a working-class Montreal single mother and her emotionally damaged teenage son, Mommy should have plenty of potential commercial appeal beyond Dolan's hard-core art house fan base. This could be his Blue Is The Warmest Color moment. The Ego has landed.

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Mommy is Dolan's fourth Cannes entry. He last came to the festival just two years ago with the visually ravishing polymorphous love story Laurence Anyways, which won the LGBT-themed Queer Palm award. Reportedly miffed at being denied an official Competition slot for that film, he chose Venice for his next -- last year's arty psycho-thriller Tom at the Farm.

But even if the gossip is true, his hissy fit is clearly now over as he is back in Cannes with his first official Competition entry. If Mommy defies the current bookie's odds and takes the Palme d'Or, Dolan will be the youngest ever winner --a year younger than Steven Soderbergh was when in 1989, at age 26, he took the big prize with Sex, Lies and Videotape.

The omens are good, since Mommy is a kind of thematic sequel to Dolan's first feature, I Killed My Mother, which won top honors in the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes five years ago. The same leading lady, Anne Dorval, plays the matriarchal pillar of both films. But this time, sympathy has very much shifted toward the long-suffering mother figure. Even though the dramatic material here is much less autobiographical, this more emotionally generous story could almost be read as an apology for Dolan's sulky, spiky, self-absorbed debut.

Mommy takes place in a lightly fictional near-future Canada following the adoption of new laws that dictate parents must either take responsibility for their emotionally disturbed children or send them to detention centers. While this may sound like the opening to one of David Cronenberg's dystopian sci-fi thrillers, it is actually just Dolan's slightly clumsy setup for the family psychodrama ahead. Everything that follows is a broadly naturalistic contemporary three-hander set in the suburbs of Montreal.

Dorval gives a force-of-nature performance as Diane “Die” Despres, a glamorously trashy middle-aged widow whose teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, bouncing off the walls as he struggles to contain his explosively violent temper. Pilon is great casting for Steve, charismatic and manipulative, volatile but vulnerable. Imagine a demonically cherubic Macaulay Culkin with the sexually charged swagger of a young Jean-Paul Belmondo.

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Diane and Steve are both flawed characters, neither victims nor villains. Their conversations are combative and prickly, full of salty slang and occasional physical contact, with teasing hints of incestuous intimacy that the script never fully explores. Unlike Dolan's typical protagonists, these are not bourgeois bohemian hipsters but damaged blue-collar outsiders, struggling yet ever hopeful, bursting with a vitality and vulgarity that give the film its raw humor.

There are more four-letter words in Mommy than all of Dolan's previous features put together. But thankfully, he avoids kitsch caricature or patronizing sentiment in depicting these impoverished, marginalized characters. "I don't see the point in making films about losers," the director explains in his Cannes press notes.

Mommy becomes a kind of bizarre love triangle when shy, stammering neighbor Kyla (Laurence Anyways alumni Suzanne Clement) takes a shine to Diane and Steve. The trio form their own dysfunctional family unit, which liberates all three from stifling personal limitations, at least temporarily. Kyla has a mysterious past and a controlling husband at home, neither of which Dolan explains fully. A missed opportunity, but not a serious omission.

At over two hours, Mommy could benefit from a shorter cut, like all of Dolan's self-edited films. Even so, he keeps this story engrossing, surprising and emotionally pungent for most of its long running time. In another sign of growing maturity, he also resists the lure of tragic melodrama right until the final few scenes, when a heartbreaking daydream sequence showing the successful alternative life that Steve will never lead (Dolan cleverly switches Pilon with another actor here) is followed by a bitter collapse into bleak reality. This downbeat ending does not sit smoothly with the rest of the film, nor does it devalue the good work that has gone before.

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One of Dolan's key selling points has always been his strong visual eye, and he does not disappoint here with balletic slow motion, gorgeous clothes and beautifully lit interiors bathed in lush reds and warm golds. But in a bold departure from his past work, Dolan and cinematographer Andre Turpin chose to shoot Mommy in the square 1:1 aspect ratio. This gimmick initially feels needlessly restrictive but soon creates its own appealing visual grammar of tightly framed close-ups and geometric patterns. Without giving away spoilers, the frame widens during two brief scenes of hope and optimism, an elegant metaphor for the characters literally expanding their narrow horizons. This flashy flourish earned a rare round of mid-movie applause in Cannes.

Another of Dolan's signature touches is his collage soundtracks of vintage pop and classical tracks. Mommy maintains this tradition, using the conceit that the songs all derive from a mixtape CD compiled by Steve's late father. Lana Del Rey, Dido and Beck all feature, but only Celine Dion is honored with her own stand-alone dance routine. "She's our national heroine!" Diane cries.

Dolan may well have read the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson's extraordinary book defending Dion against highbrow snobbery, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. If not, he should. Because Mommy feels like a similarly joyous celebration of the raw emotionalism and cultural richness of Quebec's Francophone working class. In any case, it is Dolan's warmest, most humane and least narcissistic film to date.

Production company: Metafilms

Cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clement

Director: Xavier Dolan

Screenwriter: Xavier Dolan

Producers: Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan

Cinematographer: Andre Turpin

Editor: Xavier Dolan

Music: Eduardo Noya

Sales company: Seville International

No rating, 134 minutes