Xavier Dolan’s fifth film, Mommy – released when the director was only twenty-five – is certainly his most mature work of an already outstanding filmography. An intimate portrait of the tenuous triangle formed between Die (Anne Dorval), her ADHD son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and her neighbour – and would-be lover – Kyla (Suzanne Clément), it’s simultaneously the director’s least ostentatious work while serving as a perfect marriage of form and function.
The cast are consistently superb – particularly Clément – while the “constrictive” 1:1 aspect ratio complements the claustrophobia rendered both by Die’s fragile financial situation and the unspoken tension of her relationship with Kyla. The dissonance created by that tension is reflected both in Kyla’s difficulty speaking and Dolan’s soundtrack which uses some, uh, questionable choices (Dido? Wonderwall?!) but cleverly plays against the mood of the scene, hinting at the potential for happiness in miserable moments and, more often, the spectre of misery hanging over the slivers of joy this pseudo-family are able to carve out.
Despite recognising the obvious craft behind Mommy, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Upon reflection, I consider it the least of Dolan’s films thus far (worth clarifying that this doesn’t make it a bad film by any stretch). At first, I felt this was probably simply a consequence of over-inflated expectations, a consequence of the extravagant praise heaped on the film from critics catching it at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival and my fondness for Dolan’s previous work (His third film, Laurence Anyways, remains one of my favourite films of all time.
But there’s more to it than that, and upon reflection my primary disappointment with Mommy can be summed up in a word that has been directed at Dolan often in the past – and often unfairly.
I’m not referring to Dolan’s fastidious mise en scène here, nor his detractor’s claims that he’s overly reliant on art cinema from decades past (as though that’s a bad thing!). Rather, the film is simply too long, both from a macroscopic and microscopic perspective. Where his previous movies were exhilarating, Mommy is exhausting, stretching out well over two hours. Too many scenes feel flabby, or simply unnecessary – distracting from the real moments of artistry to be found. It’s as though Dolan feels so privileged to be able to put actresses like Dorval and Clément in the same room that he’s lost his usual aptitude for editing. Combined with a dramatically inert screenplay – that emphasises the direction the story’s headed with its opening intertitles – it makes for an unnecessarily gruelling experience.
Granted, there’s some intentionality behind this. Mommy is not intended to be a joyful film, not intended to be a pleasant experience. And the quotidian drudgery of much of the dialogue is thematically justified – Steve’s profane-laden rants an expression of his pent-up rage, Kyla and Die’s awkward small talk a manifestation of their imprisonment as mothers, as wives, as queer women in a straight man’s world. But these scenes would’ve been just as effective with sharper editing, with tighter focus, with, perhaps most critically, a more nuanced sense of these characters’ interiority. Some opacity is understandable, but by the end of the film I felt I knew how these characters felt but not necessarily – particularly in the case of Kyla – who they were.