Movie Review – Mommy

Mommy (2014, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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The film opens with title cards that explain we are going to be viewing an alternate 2015 where a new political regime has come to power in Canada and passed a law titled S-14. The law allows for parents of emotionally troubled children who are in low socio-economic conditions to send their children to hospitals and mental health care facilities without regard to fundamental justice. Fundamental justice is a much broader sense of civil rights, designed to anticipate unknown future laws that might try to violate the rights of individuals by being intentionally vague. In this situation, we meet Diana Després (Anne Dorval), a widowed journalist who is forced to remove her emotionally unstable son, Steve, from a juvenile detention facility after he burns another child. From there, their living situation becomes more complicated as work dries up and tension between Diana and Steve intensifies. Into this mix is thrown their neighbor across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). This trio makes up a very different family unit, and they experience highs and lows ending up in a bittersweet place at the end of the film.

This is the last Xavier Dolan film of the month, and it is fascinating to see his growth as a filmmaker in a relatively short time. I Killed My Mother came out in 2009 and next year he has his seventh film coming out. He has also developed a stronger sense of aesthetics since that first feature. In an interview about Mommy, Dolan explained the importance of fashion in his work and how designing the costume of his characters is a crucial element in his writing and directing. In Mommy, each character tells us their story through their clothes, before a single word is even spoken.

The element of the film that you’ll immediately notice is the 1:1 aspect ratio, meant to resemble a cell phone camera filming. The movie is not found footage, but Dolan explained that he believes the aspect ratio to feel incredibly intimate. This seemingly unimportant and possibly pretentious element of filmmaking actually plays a crucial role in conveying the emotional conditions of the characters. Twice in Mommy, the screen expands to a 2:35:1 ratio. The first time this happens, it is to convey a sense of exhilaration and the second is to communicate Diana’s internal pain and struggle near the end.

Not enough can be said about the performances of Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément in this film. Both actresses have been with Dolan in four out of his now seven films. Each time they play a prominent role they reveal a different facet of themselves. Dorval has played a mother in three films (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Mommy) and each portrayal is of an entirely different character. Clément is amazing to watch in light of her performance in Laurence Anyways. Kyla could not be a more different character, but the actress brings layers of depth and leaves ambiguity as to what has left Kyla with her speech impediment and why she has gone on sabbatical from teaching.

What is most important about Mommy is it’s honest and heartbreaking portrayal of how poverty destroys a family’s ability to get quality mental and emotional care. Financial hardship creates barriers to getting a lawyer, paying the bills, and generally living life. Diana struggles with creating a sense of hope for Steve and succumbing to the stresses of life and lashing out at him. Diana sums it up in a speech that can be read in some different ways:

“[…] I’m full of hope, okay. The world ain’t got tons of hope. But I like to think it’s full of hopeful people, hoping all day long. Better off that way because us hopeful people can change things. Hopeful world with hopeless people…that won’t get us far. I did what I did, so that way there is hope.”

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Movie Review – Laurence Anyways

Laurence Anyways (2012, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) is a literature teacher in Montreal who is a long term relationship with Fred (Suzanne Clément). Laurence is also a transgender woman living as a man and has yet to reveal this truth to anyone around her. Laurence and Fred’s relationship is volatile one, and we find it at a high point, but hints show us there have been many ups and downs. When Laurence finally reveals that she wants to begin transitioning, Fred runs but eventually comes back after she’s had some time to process this idea. She encourages Laurence to start dressing in ways she feels comfortable and to take those steps to begin living the life her partner needs. The rest of the film explores the impact this change has on Laurence and Fred’s relationship as well as how Laurence grows and finds support outside his immediate circle.

Xavier Dolan finally stepped away from merely autobiographical work to make a film about an experience he has never had. The result is a film that is ultimately going to turn some people off if they approach it with a certain expectation. Laurence Anyways is not a film about a fully realized transgender woman. It is a film about transition and expectation. It is a film about making compromises when the things we need to survive conflict with the people we love. And while it has “happy ending” it is not the ending a more traditional filmmaker would come to.

At its heart, Laurence Anyways is a highly French film, like all of Dolan’s work. Emotion runs high and big chunks of the film are impressionistic glimpses into the inner thoughts of our characters. A woman sits on a sofa reading a poem, and we see the set engulfed in torrents of water. Laurence and Fred step forth from a house after a critical moment in their relationship and step through a rainfall of clothing. A character hesitates before a doorway, contemplating how their next step will determine the direction of their future and leaves are violently whipped around just beyond the glass letting them know this could be a risky path. Heartbeats was primarily a queer remake of Jules et Jim and, while I’m not an expert in French or queer cinema, I strongly feel Laurence Anyways is taking on tropes of traditional romantic French films and remixing them with this large, crucial idea of transgender identity.

Dolan doesn’t shie from the uncomfortable throughout the film. The first third has a high, positive energy threaded throughout. Once the formal transition begins though we see characters who were accepting in theory start to question how they feel about Laurence. Dolan doesn’t seek to tell a historically factual accounting of a relationship, rather the emotions of a relationship. Once Fred first comes to accept, or think she has accepted, her partner’s choice she ecstatically tells a friend that “Our generation is ready for this! The sky’s the limit!” When you reach the conclusion of the film these words take on a new context and Laurence and Fred’s relationship is not the simple, easy thing that Fred believed.

Laurence is not a perfect representation of a trans person and the film’s lack of actual trans people does feel slightly problematic. Poupaud’s performance, however, feels incredibly honest. The film uses the framing device of Laurence being interviewed 10 years after the start of the film. She explains to the reporter that she had “stealing the life of the woman [she] was meant to be.” Throughout, no matter how other characters react to or try to advise Laurence she staunchly fights to remain true to herself. This doesn’t mean life plays out with sunshine and rainbows, but this central focus keeps her from failing in this larger ideal. Dolan infuses the conclusion with a bittersweet ending. While Laurence has become on the outside the woman she has always been internally, there has been loss along the way. The greatest changes in our life are wrought with pain and loss but, if they lead us to a greater understanding of the truth within ourselves, we will endure.

Movie Review – Heartbeats

Heartbeats (2010, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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In watching I Killed My Mother, it was clear that Xavier Dolan had a sharp sense of humor. In Heartbeats he allows himself to make an overt comedy of manners that has delivered more laughs from me than most comedies I’ve watched this year. The story centers on Francis (Dolan), and Marie (Monia Chokri) are best friends who meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young man who entrances them both. They begin a vicious back and forth to decide who gets Nicolas in the end.

The comedy in Heartbeats comes from Francis and Marie’s growing animosity with each other over Nicolas’ affections and the ongoing confusion his behavior and words illicit. During a playful game of hide and seek in the woods he manages to tackle Francis, pinning him to the ground. And keeps him pinned for a longer than usual amount of time before hurriedly rushing away, an act that builds confidence in Francis’ perceived chances with Nicolas. A few scenes later, Francis finds out Nicolas has invited Marie to see a play together without even asking Francis which throws him into confusion about his possible suitor’s intentions. At first, our protagonists attempt to play things cooly and not truly acknowledging the competition at hand. By the end of the film, they have devolved into wrestling on the ground decked in clothing out of place in the rustic, cabin setting they have ended up in.

Dolan has a very deft hand at the awkward moment, particularly zeroing in the desperation people take on when they are incredibly attracted to an individual they see as “cooler” than them or “out of their league.” At one point, Francis makes a completely inappropriately expensive purchase for Nicolas’ birthday and, while this fact is only known to Francis and the audience, it adds tension to the informal gift competition that springs up between him and Marie. As an actor, Dolan has the most perfect uncomfortable, awkward smile. He’s left behind at Nicolas’ apartment and has to receive a monthly allowance being delivered by Nicolas’ mother (played by the remarkable Anne Dorval, who played Dolan’s mother in his previous film). Dorval dominates most of the conversation, revealing her career as an exotic dancer, her broken relationship with Nicolas’ father, and other TMI. Dolan doesn’t fade into the background, though, and through his face and his body language, the audience is reminded of all those intensely awkward conversations we’ve ended up in, and especially those with a friend’s parent or some other acquaintance who shares far too much information.

The new element in this film for me was Monia Chokri as Dolan’s rival. Chokri was fantastic and kept up with her co-star and director by exuding an awkward confidence. As the tension increases, her chill unaffected nature begins to show cracks culminating in a scene where she runs into Nicolas on the street that will elicit the strongest empathic cringe from anyone watching. The awkward humor is never to the intensity that something like Curb Your Enthusiasm produces, it is continually softened through a lens of romantic idealism. Chokri’s Marie is presented as a very composed and intentional person, bearing an early 1960s appearance in both hairstyle and clothing. Coincidentally Nicolas mentions his love of Audrey Hepburn and Marie begins adding accessories that emphasize those aspects of her appearance.

The film is about friendship and the silliness of “profound love” and romanticism. It evokes the visual style of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love in particular moments, but instead of using this imagery to evoke a sense of serious simmering passion, Dolan uses it to cultivate a sense of irony with the protagonist’s actions. This is yet another Dolan film that highlights a different talent than I Killed My Mother and Tom at the Farm. The former is a wonderfully bittersweet character study, and the latter is an exercise in tension and psychology. Heartbeats are Dolan’s take on a romantic comedy, a modern remix of Jules and Jim with his own personal visual flair.

Movie Review – I Killed My Mother

I Killed My Mother (2009, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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If you look up the many articles and interviews about Xavier Dolan, you will likely get a picture of an arrogant young artist. These would not be wrong, but I would challenge that this portrayal is negative particularly in cinema. Dolan represents a strong, re-interpretive Millennial energy that was inevitable in film. In the same way, the French New Wave and the iconoclastic American 1970s filmmakers made their mark in the form; Dolan is doing that same type of work. Does he indulge? Damn straight he does. But I challenge anyone to find a single auteur who doesn’t indulge constantly.

Dolan’s first feature, I Killed My Mother is the story of Hubert Minel (played by Dolan), a 16-year-old gay man, still closeted to his mother and who engages in the most vicious arguments and conflicts with this central caretaker. Dad stepped out when Hubert was seven and left Chantale, the mother (Anne Dorval) to raise the boy on her own. Hubert is two months into a relationship with a classmate and looking towards a career in the arts, encouraged by a supportive teacher (Suzanne Clément).

Dolan is a filmmaker influenced by the medium. No moment in I Killed My Mother is simply a moment; they are accented by flourishes of style from Goddard-like framing (off center and with both conversants in the frame), slow motion almost from a perfume ad, black and white confessional close-ups, and myriad of other touches that add emotion to a relatively typical story of parent-child conflict. He also knows the importance of establishing character through setting, as seen in the very opening close-ups of his mother’s tchotchke-filled home. We also learn volumes about her through her hairstyle, clothing, even the manner in which she eats breakfast. And all this if before she even has a modicum of dialogue.

While Dolan is the composer and conductor, Anne Dorval as Chantale is the star player. It would have been very easy for Chantale to slip in caricature, but Dorval does gritty work to keep the character faceted and obscured. In moments of high tension, she will begin to follow the same type of script I imagine all of us remember from our adolescence, which is underscored by Hubert calling her out on this same repetition. She shuts him down in the same manner that frustrated us all and drove many teenagers to those primal, guttural ARGHs! There is a moment near the end of the film where her role as a single mother is blamed as the reason why Hubert is struggling academically and exhibits such rebellious behavior. This is the moment where Dorval lets Chantale crack through the thickly layered makeup and sequined floral outfits. Chantale’s love for her son is beyond the question of outsiders, and she makes that known.

Dolan made I Killed My Mother at the age of 20 and has not tried to hide the fact that it is heavily biographical. He has stated that this is a film he couldn’t have waited decades to make, that it needed the raw emotion of being only steps away from adolescence. And he is completely right. A forty-something making the film in deep retrospect would have let nostalgia slip in between the cracks. There is no wistful memory manifesting falsified beauty here. Through the ugliness of this relationship, we see Beauty and Love. We don’t fight and scream with this level of fervor at people we hate, the type of anger glimpsed in the film born out of intense love and need. It is the attempt to communicate love but failing to do so because the language does not possess the vocabulary to do so.

Hubert states in one of his bathroom confessionals on camera that he doesn’t love his mother like a mother, but he loves her nonetheless. During a late night conversation, Hubert fueled by ecstasy and barging home full of elation to speak to Chantale; he states, “I love you. I am telling you this so that you won’t forget.” This is the moment where the nature of the relationship changes, not profoundly, but both characters redefine the bond. Hubert is no longer the dependent glimpsed in the Super 8 home movies at the old house by the lake. He is an individual coming into his own, intellect, a sexual being, a partner in a relationship, developing complex ideas and emotions. Chantale is reticent to accept that, but by the end of the film, they come to an unspoken understanding. Their relationship will never be what they both remember and wish it could be, something new will form and in that they will find a place for their love.

Tom at the Farm (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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Frenetic strings screaming. The sound of cornstalks furiously rustling. The blur of figure bursting through them. He enters a clearing in the field. We cut to a tight shot of his face. His bleach blond hair is a tangled mess. A thin line of blood travels from the corner of his lip diagonally down to his chin. He is suddenly thrown to the ground by a man exploding from the corn.

This sort of explosive moment is what Tom at the Farm is all about. It spend the majority of its run time letting tension crank up until the rope is tightly wound. When the tension is allowed to release we’re met with moments of raw brutality that are confusing and upsetting.

Brought to us by Quebecois director, Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm follows a young man (Dolan as the lead) as he journeys into the Canadian version of the Midwest. He’s headed there to attend the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he quickly learns that Guillaume was keeping a lot of secrets from him and his own family. He meets Agathe, the matriarch, who was lied to about her youngest having a fiance and Francis, the psychotic older brother who believes he can beat Tom into submission about keeping these lies going.

The first time Francis assaults Tom it is shocking and unexpected. But as their aggressive relationship continues it begins to take on a twisted psychosexual tone. At moments, Tom seems to become submissive and seeks out this continued violent treatment from Francis. And even Francis seems to desire Tom despite his protestations. When Tom finally attempts to leave he finds his car dismantled in the barn, stranding him in this desolate farm country. However, he finds himself comforted by the pastoral lifestyle, helping the birth of a calf, and then finding a moment to break down with emotion of what he participated in. In the midst of this tense psychological battle, Tom and Francis end up in an embrace after the latter reveals he took ballroom dancing lessons for a long lost ex.

The tone of the film is balanced somewhere between a lesser Hitchcock picture and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As the film nears its conclusion we discover a secret about Francis that illuminates his virulent anger and rage over Guillaume’s sexuality. The final shot of the film lets up contemplate the consequences of a moment when that rage overflowed. We don’t know what Tom believes about this revelation but we know it will inevitably shake up his world. While as unreal and absurd as the choices are that Tom makes when we, the audience, are likely shouting at him to just leave, these quiet final moments bring the film back to some semblance of a grounded reality.