Cannes: Mommy review

Mommy recounts the relationship between Steve and his mother Diane, who goes by the improbably-spelled Die for short. Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a very troubled young man, suffering from ADHD and violent episodes. He’s more than a handful for Die (Anne Dorval).

The film creates a claustrophobic, boxed in experience for the audience and, in many respects, we’re being taken there in sympathy with Die. She’s trapped by her son, with the only respite coming when he’s not around or, for a few precious moments, he’s calm, happy and a pleasure to be around.

While these spells of serenity have been few and far between, they’re becoming a little more common through the influence of a neighbour. She begins to spend a great deal of time with mother and son, and the scenes in which the three of them enjoy life together, finding pleasure in even simple household chores, are extraordinary to witness. The dialogue in Mommy is witty and sharply written, and delivered by actors who bring a great deal to its interpretation. Dolan and his cast draw the viewer deeply into the characters’ lives so that we feel what the characters feel, both the pain and the release.

I wasn’t so entirely engulfed by Dolan’s music choices, which included montages set to Dido and Oasis, and the soundtrack did throw me out of the film a little.

But there is an elephant in the room, and that is the aspect ratio Xavier Dolan has chosen for the cinematography of Mommy.

Dolan is no stranger to aspect ratio shenanigans and his most recent feature, Tom at the Farm, shifted the screen’s proportions all over the place. Mommy is more consistent, having been made and projected almost entirely in an aspect ratio of 1:1. This screen shape is hardly common, it’s boxy and looks rather strange when first seen on a cinema screen.

For a rough idea of what 1:1 looks like, you can refer to Dolan’s NSFW music video for Indochine’s College Boy. Watch it full screen if you can. Dolan says this project was a step on the path to using the 1:1 ratio for Mommy.

I’d be lying if I said the 1:1 choice didn’t frustrate me. My brain kept screaming ‘It just looks wrong,’ but there is a degree to which this frustration enhanced my engagement with the film, and it became an important part of the experience. Mommy is very much about entrapment and the desire to break out from it, right down to the proportions of the image.

Steve is suffering from a mental illness that constricts him. His mother is confined by her son, held captive and beaten down by his behaviour. The claustrophobic nature of the images, with the aspect ratio creating a lot of tight frames, weaves the characters’ feelings into every shot. And Dolan makes choices with the aspect ratio that also help convey the happier moments too, with two of the more upbeat sequences proving electrifying .

Mommy is sometimes incredibly funny, as Steve’s ‘naughtiness’ leads to amusing situations, but at its core, this is a heartbreaking, often challenging tale about what happens when a parent has a child that they just aren’t equipped to handle.

This is Xavier Dolan’s finest film to date, ironically enough by a very wide margin.