2016 Film Essays

The Weight of Ratio: Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’ (2015)


*Minor Spoilers*

Ever since I saw J’ai tué ma mère at the Toronto International Film Festival, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Xavier Dolan. As a filmmaker struggling with her own ideas, it’s a little upsetting to see a man (of the same age) come out with a fully formed idea of his own kind of cinema. Dolan’s brilliance and ability to craft emotionally potent films, filled with the kind of pathos usually reserved for seasoned artists, is no mean feat. I cannot talk about Dolan without speaking from the heart,  there is something deeply felt in his work. Dolan gets into my head and roots around before leaving me bereft and filled with awe. His latest film, Mommy, is an insular tour-de-force of misplaced emotion. Three years a widow, Die (Anne Dorval) struggles to deal with her emotionally disturbed son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a neighbor, is eager to help and enters their tragedy only to better it.


Dolan does not shy away from showing us the frustration Die experiences in her relationship with Steve. At the same time, we don’t see an annoying child, but a person on the brink of adulthood who struggles to understand himself. Steve is not bad — he is not trying to hurt anyone — it’s just that he feels so much, and so intensely, as his feelings bubble over into perceived madness, anger, or violent outbursts. In the slow motion sequences (as Steve careens down the highway using a shopping cart as a skateboard), we get the distinct impression that he loves life. He raises his arms in salute to the earth, and the music blares with inferred meaning. We understand, because in a lot of ways, we have all been there. We have all been teenagers bursting with complex emotions that seem to ooze from our very being. Pilon is deeply believable as Steve and brings a kind of roaring energy to a film already filled with screaming emotion.


Dolan’s use of the 1:1 aspect ratio is remarkable. At first, it seems gimmicky, but as the film progresses, we realize that Mommy would be incomplete without it. The ratio serves to show us Die’s limited purview of the world. Everything around her is influenced and controlled by her relationship with Steve. Die desperately wants him to have a normal life, and to grow up to be a good man, but she knows her dreams for Steve will probably come to nothing. In the final moments of Mommy, when the aspect ratio shifts to wide for a few moments, and we understand the full implications of it, everything crumbles. All good intentions turn to dust, and we understand that we have been deceived. Mommy is a dangerous film. It tackles the kind of complex emotions and actions we wish we could readily understand. It delves deep into desperation and comes back up empty handed and weeping. Dolan is a director who never fails to amaze, and Mommy may be his best film yet.

Lex Corbett (@trazism) is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Toronto, Ontario. She studied cinema, both theoretical and practical, at the University of Toronto and OCAD U, respectively, and currently enamoured with the films of both the American Independent Cinema and Alfred Hitchcock.