mommyThroughout his oeuvre, writer/director Xavier Dolan has presented viewers with the great range of loving relationships. Love cannot be contained in neat categories constrained by normalcy or appropriateness. In his films, love spills over, revealed in raw emotion both beautiful and ugly. In Mommy, Dolan has developed characters filled with contradictions, shortcomings and limitations, brought to life through powerful performances by Anne Dorval as Diane, mother to teenage Steve played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. These raw performances coupled with Dolan’s stylistic narrative make Mommy one of the most immersive, adventurous and – dare I say – masterful films of this year. It rightfully won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 tying with another master, Jean-Luc Godard (Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D affirms a master filmmaker’s place in history of cinema). Mommy also won the Best North American Film Award at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

The film opens to a stark announcement about a law that allows parents to commit their children to a state-run facility if they are beyond control. The harsh law is also a warning for the audience to brace themselves, as the world we are about to enter is not an easy one. Mommy is the story of a dysfunctional family, a recently widowed woman and her teenage son, who has just been released from an institution, struggle to make a life for themselves. Circumstances constrain both mother and son. They live in economic distress and have difficulty managing their emotions in socially acceptable ways. The emotionally fractured characters are all strong and vulnerable, needing a family while rejecting structures — a modern tale of family.

The film kicks off with the encounter between mother and son, which is both a violent clash between two opposing worlds and a beautiful encounter between two family members who love each other so deeply it hurts. Diane “Die” Després (Dorval) is a recently widowed single mother living pay check to pay check. Die flaunts an over-sexualized image complete with youthful, scantily clad outfits that make for a garish exterior. Her maternal instincts kick in when Steve comes to live with her. Steve is loud and rude, but his is also screaming for attention and starving for familial connection. Going through ADorval-AOPilon21418088653adolescence, Steve’s sexuality is also very much present. Both Die and Steve are deeply affected by the loss of Steve’s father a few years earlier, and although they love each other deeply, their dynamic is fraught with confrontations that escalate to conflict easily. Dolan does not hold back, constraining much of the action in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio, and inviting the actors to express their characters to grating, bombastic heights that those familiar with his work should be prepared for.

Early in the movie, Steve comes home with bags filled with groceries and a gift for Die: a gold necklace that spells “Mommy.” He clearly has no way to pay for any of these things, and his worried mother scornfully implies thieving, shutting down his at first triumphant and exuberant entrance. Feeding off her negativity, Steve’s joy quickly turns to a violent outburst, one of the constants in the character dynamic throughout the film, which also seems on the edge of exploding in unpredictable ways.

Pilon’s performance captures that teenage angst and volatility brilliantly, and Dolan understands how to ratchet them with his shooting style. Some of the shots of Steve by himself running around and playing with a shopping cart in a parking lot showcase that combination of boredom and excess of energy all captured in the narrow confines of a life that seems overbearing, as demonstrated with a tighter aspect ratio than the sometimes familiar and more comfortable 4:3. Dolan’s stylistic choice therefore pushes the film medium to new heights, which is what makes him an exciting director. His defiance to the establishment can be likened to Steve’s own frustration with rules and order.

The complex relationship between mother and son is somewhat alleviated by the presence of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who becomes a friend to Die and a caretaker to Steve. Unable to connect with her own family because of a mysterious trauma early in her life, Kyla suffers from a speech impediment that becomes less pronounced as she settles in with Steve and Die. Her ability to find her voice comes as the three characters discover an unconventional family structureSClement11418088668. The trio go from feeling trapped in their own circumstances to a freeing state that feels easy and open. As the entire mood of the film changes, “Wonderwall” by Oasis takes over the soundtrack, and beyond Steve’s smile, we can hear Noel Gallagher’s bratty cool voice intone, “Back beat, the word is on the street/That the fire in your heart is out.” The relief is so enjoyable it’s easy to forget the looming warning foreshadowed at the top of the film: the possibility of having Steve committed.

Dolan’s fifth film is as much an exploration on familial relationships and friendships, as it is a transformation in his filmmaking to another level. The exuberance and emotion that jump out of the screen are as much a product of strong performances as they are a result of Dolan’s directorial vision to take light, music and even the screen in a different direction. The stylistic choices in Mommy are not gratuitous but serve the overall arc of the story, doing what cinema does best, telling a story with imagery that captures all your senses. Dolan’s Mommy grabs on to your psyche and does not let go, and it will stay with you.

Ana Morgenstern

Mommy runs 139 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rated R (for cussing and sexual referencing). It opens this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach and The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale. To find screenings elsewhere in the US click here. The Coral Gables Art Cinema hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster artFocusing on 10 years in the life of a man who has decided to undergo a transformation into a woman, Xavier Dolan handles the drama of Laurence Anyways with a wry sense of balance that includes powerful performances, expertly paced scenes, spectacular set design and costumes and a brilliant command of cinematographic language. Though tackling an often misunderstood subculture in the varied array of the LGBT world (a man who wants to be a woman who still has an attraction to women) the film is simply a brilliantly sculpted piece of cinematic drama that should be seen by cinephiles in search of something that boldy explores and exploits the cinematic medium to its limits. But there’s a brilliant, compassionate story at the center of it, too.

At the film’s start, against nothing but company logos of production houses that made the film possible we can hear Laurence (Melvil Poupaud): “I’m looking for a person who understands my language and speaks it. A person who, without being a pariah, will question not only the rights and the value of the marginalized, but also those of the people who claim to be normal.” It’s a bold statement beyond sex and gender, and the film stays true to that, never over-sexualizing but focusing on acceptance of a person out to challenge what seems “normal” in a compulsive yet honest— if not passionate— manner.

As the intense drama between Laurence and his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) offers up one conundrum after another while offering insight into the troubles involved in Laurence’s desire to finally be true to who he believes he really is, laurence-anyways-3Dolan provides a kaleidoscope of cinema that always feels fresh from scene to scene. He even throws in a few scenes of poetic fantasy sequences to express revelations that exist beyond the tangible world. For instance, to cap off one conversation between the couple, Laurence opens his mouth to only have a butterfly flutter out.

But that’s mere stunt work compared to the subtle craft that permeates the many scenes in the film. Laurence Anyways feels like an experience. Early on, in 1989, when Laurence is about to reveal his desire to change, he and Fred are making out inside a car as rain pounds on the windshield and Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes” blares from the radio. The scene is lensed with a fish eye, making the interior seem expansive. Fred, her brunette hair partly painted a brilliant red expounds on tapping into experiences via color. They exchange intense phrases of sex and trauma and their associative colors. In the distance a woman in a red raincoat walks by, blurred by the fierce raindrops. It’s a brilliant allusion to the personality Laurence and Fred are about to tangle with for the remainder of the film.

Many scenes in Laurence Anyways echo with layered meaning and drama. It’s in the small details as well as the grand. The film is full of surprises, from inventive camera angles to the a varied color palette. A later confrontation inside the car is punctuated by the wash cycle of the car wash the couple is sitting through. laurence-anyways-4The details in the set design are worth noting for the glaring dichotomies, from floral print pillows coupled with zebra-print roll pillows to the conscious decision to show a metal rail on a red, wooden door frame. Some shots could be framed as art pieces, like the image of carefully torn pages of a letter scattered inside a toilet bowl, shot straight from above.

The film’s two-hour-and-40-minute runtime should not be considered a detriment. Dolan does so much with the many scenes that never feel overlong from a cinematic standpoint. The film never feels like it drags. Divided into several chapters, noting certain years, Dolan even varies fonts of the intertitles. The director also does not stick to one sort of cinematographic technique. Some scenes merit long, lingering distant shots, others handheld work. Laurence Anyways is all about change, after all.

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Despite all the flash, it never overshadows the heartfelt performances of the actors who take on their damaged personas with amazing gusto. Fred’s outburst toward an older and over-inquisitive waitress during a Saturday Brunch with Laurence probably stands as the reason why the jury at Cannes took notice of her to give her the best actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category. The tension between her love of Laurence, her frustration with a situation in their relationship she had no choice in and an anger at a world filled with people who judge from a distance pours forth with a fervor that will break your heart.

Though the film feels personal and intimate, it never loses sight of the glam and glitter side of Laurence’s pull toward the feminine. There are scenes of such high-tilt glam,Laurence-Anyways-Xavier-Dolan-2012-cannes-640x350 Ziggy Stardust would go home and cry. At the same time, the film never loses sight of the passionate connection between two souls who are drawn together no matter their situation. It’s similar to what Cloud Atlas said with its various characters drawn together over various centuries, but without the hokum. This feels real. There’s passion in this young director and he knows how to tap into a similar passion in his two leads to make for one of the more compelling dramas of 2013.

Hans Morgenstern

Laurence Anyways Trailer from Breaking Glass Pictures on Vimeo.

Lauerence Anyways is not rated, runs 168 min. and is in English and French with English subtitles. It plays in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. The film is presented in conjunction with Dolan’s 2009 debut feature, I Killed My Mother, marking that film’s US theatrical debut. FYI: Dolan won Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight with that film when he was 19 years old. If you are outside South Florida, Laurence Anyway’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)