Cast: Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Patrick Huard
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Selected for the Jury Prize at Cannes, Mommy is a harsh, provocative film that is ceaseless in its unflinching brutality. It is a film that depicts the turbulent relationship of a troubled mother and her volatile son from the touching, tender moments to the ugly, vicious outbursts. The film tackles the theme of motherhood as it asks difficult and complex questions as a mother with her own fair share of demons and flaws is faced with the task of raising, loving and nurturing a problem child. It asks whether a mother’s love is indeed unconditional. It asks if there is a limit to what a mother can endure from her own child. It asks what it means for a mother to give up on her own child and whether there are circumstances in which such a choice, no matter how dreadful or painful, is the only viable option left.
Die (Anne Dorval) is a widowed mother who has been informed that she must collect her fifteen-year-old son from the institution he was housed in after he set a fire that landed a boy in the hospital. After having seen him get thrown out of succeeding institutions, Die must now take Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) home and raise him herself. Die is clearly not the ‘perfect’ mother; she is hot-tempered, she swears like a sailor, she wears trashy clothing, she doesn’t have a permanent job and she leads an unhealthy lifestyle. However, whatever she may lack in skills and etiquette, her love and devotion to her son are never in question. She brings him home, adamant about making changes to their lives and determined not to take any more shit from him. We can tell that this will be a difficult task immediately upon meeting Steve. He has a hyperactive energy that is almost inexhaustible, he is unapologetically rude to everyone he meets, he swears as indiscriminately as his mother and he shows absolutely no remorse for any of his actions, least of all the fire that got him kicked out of the institution. However he also displays a clear sense of love and devotion to his mother. The complex, fascinating bond that they share is the heart of this film.
That these two are devoted to each other is never questioned. When Steve is kicked out of the institution Die is approached about the possibility of surrendering him to a juvenile detention centre and renouncing all responsibility to him (now made possible through a new (fictional) piece of legislation), a thought that Die refuses to entertain. She resolves herself to raise Steve single-handedly and so it very much seems like it is the two of them against the world. Although Steve shows a severe lack of respect for his mother’s matriarchal authority in terms of doing his chores or being home-schooled by her, he nevertheless stays with her because he recognises that Die is the only person in the entire world who will still have him. However their bond is nevertheless an unstable one and the two of them often turn on each other, engaging each other in shouting matches. Their outbursts are somewhat tempered by the inclusion of a neutral third-party in the form of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy neighbour who suffers from a stammer. Upon befriending her, Die learns that Kyla used to be a teacher and appeals to her to school Steve. Kyla, unlike Die, is kind, warm, gentle and patient. Although Steve proves to be a difficult student, Kyla is nevertheless able to reach through to him. When Steve’s performance and conduct starts to improve, the possibility is raised that perhaps the obstacles inherent in raising him can be overcome after all.
Cinephiles will doubtless be fascinated by the film’s unusual 1:1 aspect ratio. The window it creates conveys a sense of claustrophobia and restraint. There is a sense that these characters are all trapped in their own ways. Die is trapped by the burden of raising her son. Steve is trapped by a compulsive nature that he cannot control. Even Kyla is trapped by a disability that almost renders her voiceless. The aspect ratio emphasises this by boxing these characters in, thereby reinforcing the notion that these characters are all confined by circumstances that they cannot escape. The significance of this perspective is further emphasised in one fundamental scene towards the end when the box disappears. It is a harsh and oppressive aspect ratio that plays a key role in shaping the tone of this film.
This film is unflinching in how far it is willing to go to portray these characters in their imperfection. Showing how flawed and unpleasant these characters can be highlights the film’s honesty and reinforces the struggle that both of these characters face. Some critics have observed the presence of an Oedipus complex in the relationship between Die and Steve, an idea that provides an insight into just how simultaneously loving and unhealthy their relationship can be. Mommy is both engaging and difficult to watch. It is a harsh and uncomfortable film that provides an unnerving and painful account of motherhood from a non-judgemental viewpoint. Members of the audience might resent Die by the end of the film, but none more so than she does herself.