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Xavier Dolan's Mommy


Xavier Dolan's Mommy


Emilija Talijan

What is it that makes Xavier Dolan's Mommy, the latest work of one of cinema's youngest and most prolific directors, a contemporary masterpiece? Film critic Emilija Talijan explores how Dolan creates a film that lives and breathes, remembers and foreshadows and leaves you with an unforgettable experience.

Mommy (2014), the latest work from cinema’s youngest and most prolific prodigy Xavier Dolan, opens with the same type of intertitles as films wishing to make a claim on truth.[1] Yet, instead of the words "based on a true story" that we would expect from such cinematic coding, Dolan introduces a near-future "fictional Canada". There, a newly elected cabinet from the federal elections of 2015 has proposed a bill to amend the health service policy - a bill whose fate the heroine of Mommy, Diane "Die" Desprès, 'appears to be intimately tied to'.

What is and isn't based on fact is deliberately uncertain. To spend energy unpacking Mommy's world would miss the point, for it is Dolan’s intention to conflate reality and fantasy and put us in a direct relationship to his characters. The reality at-one-remove in the near-future that the film sets up, functions in a specific way for what follows; a story, in which characters' horizons are only ever near-future and imaginary, their fates mired in a precarious, stifling short term, which may as well be considered the present. This is echoed formally by Mommy's much discussed 1:1 aspect ratio, which makes us, as viewers, operate within the same short-sightedness as its characters. Off-screen space becomes a site of horror - we don't know what disaster lies just outside the frame... such as the body of a vulnerable boy bleeding on a supermarket floor.

One day the shit’s going to hit the fan big time - soon enough. It’s just a question of time
— Die

Diane "Die" explicitly states the mechanics of Mommy's narrative: "One day" she says "the shit’s going to hit the fan big time - soon enough. It's just a question of time". And it is a question of time, as the plot of the film seems to be subsisted by the structural metaphor of a bomb - Steve's outbursts. Or perhaps the better comparison is a car crash. It is with a car crash that Mommy begins and it seems Die and Steve's lives are haunted by this metaphor, which at every moment is a tangible possibility. When Steve puts on Celine Dion's On Ne Change Pas and begins dancing, Die warns Kyla (their newly acquainted neighbour) "it's starting. Fasten your seatbelt." The characters are as aware as we are of their film’s ending, making Mommy not about their fates, but their instances of being in the present, from one moment to the next – a film not about the crash, but about the road trip. 

Laughter serves Mommy well, between the film’s other dynamics of choking and breathing, which are visually matched by the contracting and expanding of the aspect ratio. The technique is almost like a pair of lungs, expanding at moments of hope and happiness to give us and Dolan’s characters some fresh air, a space to breath and imagine. This happens during a ‘things-are-looking-up’ montage or when Die imagines what Steve’s future might have been like, were things perhaps otherwise. The 1:1 choice has been described as Instagramesque, but Dolan puts this pop comparison back into context, insisting instead on the past and the dimensions of the Kodak Brownie.[2] This is interesting, for the Brownie (launched in 1900) popularised photography, made it accessible to a wider audience and brought about the idea of the snapshot. The term 'snapshot' holds a unique relationship with the concept of time; its figurative definition suggesting the capture of something transitory at a moment in time. In Barthes' discussion of the ontology of photography in Camera Lucida (1980) he argues the photograph is privileged in its ability to conflate temporalities within one object. 'Every photograph' writes Barthes 'is a certificate of presence' and simultaneously of a having-been-present.[3] This has a unique ability to affect a viewer by confronting them with the irrecuperable and spectral nature of an absent presence. 

The term ‘snapshot’ holds a unique relationship with the concept of time; its figurative definition suggesting the capture of something transitory at a moment in time.

Dolan makes the snapshot mobile in Mommy, but he also conflates temporalities and gives the past a material presence through his treatment of Mommy's soundtrack, which Dolan describes as "in the film, not on the film". Most songs appear to be diegetic - their sources identified on car radios, in bars, on stereos. Steve blows away a layer of dust from the hi-fi, a material trace of time's imprint, before playing the CD his father created for their road trip when he was still alive. Dolan's camera lingers on the ghostly, digital 'hello' of the hi-fi. The entirety of the film's soundtrack could come from this road trip playlist. The music is like the spectre of Steve's father, giving him a sonic, disembodied presence within the film that informs both image and story. The music, deliberately nostalgic of the 90s and 2000s, is also extremely evocative. These are songs we love to hate, or cannot help but love. Oasis' Wonderwall and Dido's White Flag demand a response by virtue of their unavoidably iconic nature, taking the viewer away from the world of the film and redirecting them along their own synapses of musical memory.

Mommy leaves you gasping for air. It lives and breathes and, as a film, feels very much alive. The characters Dolan has created exist with a vitality that stays with you beyond the film, like songs you can’t get out of your head. It’s as if the style of the film as a whole is like his characters – in your face and not really bothered if you like it, the way it looks and sounds. Mommy is loud, colourful and daring and you will have to pay attention. But it will also make you notice yourself – how you relate: to these people, to the music, to what’s real and what’s not and perhaps even to cinema itself.


[1] Mommy was awarded the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The prize was jointly awarded alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (Adieu au Langage) making the prize simultaneously held by both the youngest and the oldest of the directors present at Cannes.
[2] Interview with Xavier Dolan during the 58th BFI London Film Festival
[3] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1981), 5-6; 87.


Emilija is a PhD candidate in the French department at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on auditory experience and theories of noise in transnational cinema. She holds a BA in French and Russian and an MPhil in Screen Media. Her MPhil thesis focused on the cinematic villages built by Emir Kusturica.