Critical Dissent: Debating Mommy with Kyle Turner

Mommy - Critical DissentIt’s fair to say that I walked into Mommy with high expectations. Xavier Dolan is an incredibly talented young director, and his third film, Laurence Anyways, is an all-time classic in my personal pantheon. Pretty much every Australian critic I know caught his latest at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, and the responses were almost universally positive, ranging from praise to ecstatic praise. If Rotten Tomatoes is to be trusted, that’s pretty representative of the critical community as a whole, with the film sitting at 91% fresh at the time of writing.

While I don’t think Mommy is a bad film – far from it – my review gives some indication of my disappointment (I described it as “simply too long, both from a macroscopic and microscopic perspective.”). So I thought it was worth recruiting one of Mommy’s most outspoken cheerleaders, Kyle Turner, to defend the film. Kyle’s a freelance film critic and writer (and a Dolan obsessive besides) studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He’s the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and runs his own blog at The Movie Scene. You can find his collected writings here, and follow him on the Twitter. (He is relieved to know he is not a golem.)

So, Kyle, what made Mommy such a great film, in your eyes? [Note: readers should expect spoilers from here on out!]

Kyle: That’s a little bit of a hard question for me. Truth be told, I was a bit underwhelmed upon a first watch, when I saw it at a press screening. As someone who is very familiar with Dolan’s filmography, nothing felt very new to me. A majority of Mommy, up to that point, felt much like slightly more honed stylistic gestures that Dolan had already been making in his previous films, but without a discernible amount of growth. It’s not until the, er, two hour mark that what seemed rather unimpressive (in comparison to his earlier work) was knocked to the side in favor something much more emotionally potent. When Steve is taken away to the asylum, I nearly broke down in the theater.

Knowing that, watching it a second time made for a much more emotional experience, even moreso than the first viewing. The film is very important for me personally, as I wrote in a piece for IndieWire’s /Bent, an unsettlingly honest reflection of my personal life. Which makes a rewatch much more painful to me, because one realizes that the stratospheric highs that Dolan is able to reach in certain scenes (“Wonderwall”, fantasy sequence) are transitory. You can’t help but feel like they’re going to end, and regardless of how beautifully expressive a moment is, that looming threat haunts you.

Dave: That’s interesting on two counts. First of all, that you were somewhat underwhelmed on first watch – that gives me hope that I’ll find something new when I rewatch the film. Secondly, it’s interesting how differently we approached the film upon first viewing. That sense of dread you talk about – the “looming threat” – dominated my experience of the film. To some extent this is a consequence of the ‘constricted’ aspect ratio Dolan has chosen, but I think it’s also a consequence of a larger sense of pessimism, accentuated by the opening intertitles.

Those intertitles seemed really superfluous at first, an unwieldy explanation of a law that could have easily been explained in dialogue. And I’m not sure that they weren’t superfluous. But their main effect on me was to leave me with the sense of certainty that this would be Steve’s fate, shuttled off to some state-run institution after overwhelming Die’s patience. I think, in part, this negatively affected my viewing experience. I felt overwhelmed by that sense of impending doom; the joyful moments didn’t seem so joyful, particularly given the length of the film. Maybe if it had come as a surprise, it would have hit harder – and those highs you talk about wouldn’t have seemed so muted? (It doesn’t help that I fuckin’ hate “Wonderwall”.)

Kyle: The funny thing about the aspect ratio thing is that I never really read it as “indicative of this family’s internal claustrophobia”. It felt too obvious to me, and too obvious for Dolan. Rather, to me, it felt like a kind of, forgive my pretension, “neo-portraiture”. Everyone I’ve read who comments on the 1:1 aspect ratio cites Instagram as a comparison, but they, as far as I know, never examine the connotations or context of that kind of remark. I think what’s interesting about the film, and a complement to Dolan’s visual sensibility, is that he is essentially taking what filmmakers like Mizoguchi, Ozu, Wes Anderson, and others have established as something still and unmoving and imbued it exactly with the kind of energy that this so-called narcissistic generation has brought to the portrait as a style of photography. Steve, and others of “our generation” are rarely still, always on the move. And with the injected sense of kineticism, Dolan captures this bizarre, dysfunctional, queer family, even to the point where characters have to fight for the frame. yet, screencap it on your computer or something, and you can still get beautiful, immaculately composed portraits out of the film’s images. I think that’s why, when the frame expands, it’s that much more overwhelming for me. Energy still in stock, but those moments feel deliberately slowed down. Not exactly restrained, but as if, unlike the rest of those images, or selfies on Instagram, truly reflective of the moment at hand.

I don’t like “Wonderwall” either, but the soundtrack is ironic, sort of, haha.

Dave: Okay, that’s a lot to think about! I’ll start by talking about the frame – the kind of in-your-face, overt stylism that we know and love (or, for some people, hate) Dolan for. Let’s start by saying that when I described the frame as “constricted” before – a direct Dolan quote, that was hanging in cinemas here for unprepared audience members – I was primarily talking about my experience as an audience member. Whatever it represents, it feels restrictive, it feels unwelcoming. There’s no denying that Dolan produces some beautiful compositions within that frame – and, as with The Grand Budapest Hotel, I love how these kind of restrictions can foster creativity – but it feels oppressive over a 2+ hour film. Deliberately oppressive? Perhaps! But it contributed to a kind of tonal homogeny for me, where I felt trapped throughout. I felt like the moments of, say, the three of them dancing to Celine Dion were intended to alleviate that, but they didn’t really for me.

Kyle: Ah, I get what you mean by “constricted” now. I suppose it is a bit jarring and hard to really deal with for this long of a film. But I do agree that the tonal oppression is, to some degree, intentional. Though, it would also be paradoxical, for, however dysfunctional and vulgar the characters in the film are, there’s supposed to be an endearing quality to them. Their slang and almost pigeon Quebecois is like the vaguely endearing Canadian version of Honey Boo Boo in a way. Though, I’m very much interested in how Dolan can present such polarizing characters without condescending to them or mocking them. It’s a weird marriage of high art/lowbrow audience as characters. On that note, the trapped feeling, that seems like a “your mileage may vary” kind of thing.

Mommy - Critical DissentDave: Sure. And I agree with you that his portraits of these characters feel genuine; without judgement. They’re neither smoothed over – that confronting scene with Steve hurling racial slurs at the cab driver – not exaggerated. I have absolutely no idea if it’s an authentic portrait of Canadians on the verge of poverty, but it feels authentic.

I also agree that the Instagram comparison is, more often than not, fairly facile (though this is not to say that there can’t be some real meat in that interpretation). I find your comments about how the tighter frame isn’t necessarily “reflective of the moment at hand” really interesting (and that’s probably a deliberate choice, what with the selfie scene and all, the three of them squeezing to fit into frame).I’m not sure if Dolan is consciously commenting upon this “narcissistic generation” however, though obviously that would be unconsciously incorporated into his work.

What I’m noticing – and this might just be me – in Dolan’s progression as a filmmaker so far is an increasing emphasis on an earlier time – specifically, the ‘90s. (He’s perhaps the first director to present a substantial portrait of ‘90s nostalgia in a way that doesn’t come across as a caricature.) The setting of Laurence Anyways, the genre of Tom at the Farm and, of course, the soundtrack of Mommy. This is as much about the Instagram generation as Steve looking back on his formative years with his father, listening to ‘90s pop songs – and it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a glimmer of autobiography in there.

Moving on from the aspect ratio, though. You described the film above as about a “queer family” – a phrase I’ve seen you use before. This is how I interpret the film, too, and it’s in this area that I think the frame really does work as a way to evoke claustrophobia – the sense of Die and Kyla being trapped in the roles of mother, wife, woman. I find it really interesting, though, that most critics – many of whom love the film – didn’t seem to read the relationship between the two women as at all romantic. While I think the film is probably Dolan’s worst – as I said, simply because he, much like my chunk of paragraphs here, needed to edit things down – if it succeeds it’s because of its portrait of the inability to find unconventional love within society’s parameters.

Kyle: On the Instagram comparison, I don’t think it’s necessarily conscious, but I also don’t think Authorial Intent is King, haha. I think it at least gives weight to why he would pick the aspect ratio and why he would invoke in interviews “the selfie generation”.

In what way do you think Tom at the Farm is ‘90s-esque? Tom at the Farm, which I believe to be his best film, has always just read to me as queer Hitchcockian thriller that doesn’t have a date, personally. But I do agree that his interest in things of the past (I guess the karaoke of Tom is a pointer to this) makes sense inasmuch as people his/our age like to fetishize the ‘90s for whatever reason.

But I think what Dolan is able to do with that fetishization is really transform it into something much more palatable. You’re very correct in saying that Laurence Anyways and Mommy are in their way very much from someone who was a part of the 1990s enough to be nostalgic for it. But he, like Lars von Trier, is a romantic (not nearly as cynical), a filmmaker that takes pride in elevated emotions and unapologetically overwhelming feelings portrayed by image and sound. Heartbeats is my favorite of his films, and that drips with that kind of Romanticism and nostalgia (James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Sting).

I use the phrase “queer family portrait” in the way that I believe that, as a triangular family dynamic of Die, Kyla, and Steve, neither Kyla nor Die are exactly bound to specific roles exactly. They’re both maternal, to be sure, but there’s a sense of fluidity to me. I don’t mean that Die and Kyle are themselves lesbian or anything, but that the dynamics and machinations of this “family” are fluid and not rigid. So, in that way, I agree inasmuch that the parameters of a familial unit are sort of unconventional. (For the record, I rank Mommy third on a personal level, second on an “objective” level.)

Mommy - Critical DissentDave: Quickly: I see Tom at the Farm as a very ‘90s film because it feels like a twist on the early-’90s films that centre on the danger of proximity. Single White Female, Basic Instinct, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, that sorta thing.

Totally on board with that idea of the trio as a fluid family unit, and queer in that sense of flexibility of identity, but I still think that there’s a strong component of romantic love to the bond between Kyla and Die. Not that it’s the entire point of the film or their relationship or anything of the sort, but when I think of shots like Die staring through her the halo of her grimy window to Kyla across the street, or of their tearful farewell … it’s hard not to read it as a bond beyond friendship. It’s not the kind of relationship that demands labels, nor one that’s easy to define (I don’t know that I’d call them lesbians, for example), but I think the strongest link in the triangle – by the film’s end – is between those two women.

I’ll end with one of the things that I find simultaneously rewarding and frustrating about the film, which is the opacity with which it sketches Kyla. That’s clearly deliberate (her difficulty with language feels thematically linked to this), and defensible on a number of levels, particularly if you interpret the film through that lens of queerness – the reluctance to rely on categorising words. But it also kept me at arm’s length from her character (despite Clément’s tremendous performance), because I never quite knew who she was. I didn’t know what her feelings for her daughter or her husband were, nor if – as the film seems to imply – she’d lost a son of her own. I don’t mean to suggest that ambiguity is a bad thing, but with 140 minutes to work with I wished I’d been given more of an idea who Kyla was.

Kyle: Mmm, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think it’s more that that both of them are outsiders in their respective contexts and worlds and find comfort in one another’s company, but the intimacy I believe is platonic, perhaps at most sororal. I do absolutely agree that their link is an incredibly strong one, and female friendship I feel is rarely portrayed in films with such honesty (like in Bridesmaids or Frances Ha). It makes Dye’s loss of Kyla seem much more tragic, as painful as Frances’s of her best friend Sophie.

I was a little surprised to hear so much praise for Suzanne Clément’s performance in the film. Restrained is nice and all, but the opaqueness of her character made it feel as if she was mostly there as a prop. We are given instances of autonomy, which is very much appreciated, but she mostly remains as much of a cipher as, say, Ryan Gosling in Drive. I do like your reading as far as queerness and words, though. This, is seems, is the biggest thing we can agree on!

Dave: Fair enough; I’ll have to agree to disagree on Clément – who I felt elevated a character who could’ve very easily been a cipher – but given I seem to be in the minority on the “Die and Kyla are in love” thing maybe her acting wasn’t as good as I thought!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kyle – a lot to think about here for when I inevitably revisit the film.

5 thoughts on “Critical Dissent: Debating Mommy with Kyle Turner

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  2. Interesting post. A “queer family portrait”– I love dynamic characters and if that means the film drags a bit, I don’t mind, usually. Looking forward to experiencing Xavier Dolan. I’ve not seen any of his films. Thanks!

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