Scar Tissue: Mommy is Xavier Dolan’s Most Serious, Sincere Film Yet

With his latest feature, Mommy, Xavier Dolan has rid himself of pretense.

“I come from a very mainstream background,” the 25-year-old Quebecois director says. He oozes joy when talking about films like Titanic and Jumanji.

Though he “started watching serious arty films” at 16, and his own first movies, made a few years later, were products of a fierce anti-commercialism, Dolan says he began to get disgusted with himself. “I caught myself beginning to dismiss things that came from a commercial background. Everything that made money was repellent, and everything that was obscure and pretentious was the center of my life. It was immature.” So he wanted to make a film where those “scars of pretentiousness,” as he calls them, had no effect on his decisions.

Dolan wrote, directed, and starred in his own debut film I Killed My Mother at 19. That feature traveled to Cannes, where two more of his films (Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways) would debut before Mommy made it into competition in 2014. Although the film has a similar title to his first, it exists in a “different universe” for Dolan.

Xavier Dolan on the set of Mommy with cinematographer André Turpin, focus puller and 1st assistant director. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

Xavier Dolan on the set of Mommy with cinematographer André Turpin, focus puller and 1st assistant director. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

The difference lies partly in the fact that, in Mommy, Dolan moved the narrative emphasis onto the maternal character and away from the figure of the son—who has, in I Killed My Mother, a distinct autobiographical bent. Mostly, though, the director attributes his new register with the realization that his previous preciousness, that “mode of thinking,” was “idiotic.” “When we did Mommy, we didn’t think about how ‘accessible’ it would be. We thought about how pleasant it would be for us to make it.”

This letting go appears to be netting Dolan his widest audience yet. Lionsgate’s indie distribution wing, Roadside Attractions, will give Mommy the largest American rollout of any Dolan film to date. And Canada has submitted it as their foreign-language submission to the 2015 Academy Awards.

Mommy isn’t absent of auteur strokes, though. It follows a scrappy, struggling single mother, Diane, or “Die” (Anne Dorval), and her brash and brutish teenaged son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who’s just been released back into her custody. They both have short fuses, exploding and lashing out at one another in an addictive combination of rage and affection. Their new neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), herself a mother harboring suburban loneliness and a speech impediment, provides some much-needed balance and harmony to their relationship over the course of the film.

Anne Dorval plays the mercurial, troubled “Die,” Mommy’s titular character

Anne Dorval plays the mercurial, troubled “Die,” Mommy’s titular character

For maximum intimacy with his actors and their performances, Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin made the radical choice to shoot Mommy in a square 1:1 ratio, leaving black bars on each side of the screen. The startling decision has provoked a flurry of responses, many critics expressing a sense of literal and figurative claustrophobia, but Dolan says his aim was simple: “I wanted to put my characters in the middle of the frame and have the audience look them in the eye.”

The actual ratio was completed in post-production. To get the framing correct on set, the crew taped both the monitors and camera viewfinders to black out the sides to 1:1. In the original footage, Dolan, his script supervisor, and grips could be seen in the frames, surrounding Dorval, Pilon or Clément.

Dolan favored close-ups and wide shots, finding the middle range to be “inelegant.” The confining nature of the ratio—which the film only strays from at certain brief, key moments—made almost every scene an individual or duo shot. “Three-person shots were always problematic. That led us to focus on single-person shots, which is actually best for the format. It’s a format for portraits.” And the portraiture works. Die and Steve are individuals trying to relearn how to live together, around a third person who tames their energy.

The 1:1 aspect ratio allowed Dolan to sit in between actors Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Dorval in this taxi scene and not be seen in single shots of each character. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

The 1:1 aspect ratio allowed Dolan to sit in between actors Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Dorval in this taxi scene and not be seen in single shots of each character. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

Dolan split the shoot in half, so that he could edit during the break, assembling a rough cut of the first half before continuing shooting. “Editing the first act while shooting, you can clearly see if there’s a spine to the movie—if it’s straight or if it’s curving, and if there are holes,” he says. “You’ll see where you’re missing a scene, where it gets too long and where you need to rewrite, before cast and crew come back.” During this time, the director typically shows cast members, friends—anyone, really—cuts of scenes, noting what parts work and where people laugh. “I listen and apply it. I have no ego or stubbornness with what’s already been shot.” He laughs, “Not anymore, anyway.”

Speaking of ego, choosing the film’s memorable soundtrack was another exercise for Dolan in outgrowing any lingering pretentiousness. He’d pre-selected an of-the-moment indie song list for Mommy, but afterwards didn’t think it fit. Almost as a confession, he told producer Nancy Grant that he wanted to use Dido’s “White Flag” in the film, but that he wasn’t sure if the sappy 2003 anthem would be taken seriously.

“She looked at me incredulously and said, ‘Why do you ask such stupid questions? People will be happy to hear that song.’” Dolan pauses. “That idea stuck with me: ‘People will be happy to hear that song.’”

The director then asked himself: What songs would make his characters happy? In the end he went with a roster of identifiable, commercial songs—emotional “treats,” he calls them. All of the songs played in the film are diegetic, tracks from a mixed CD that Steve’s father, now deceased, made for a road trip to California when they were still a family. Steve and Die listen to it at dinner and on a trip to the grocery store; Steve requests one of the tracks during an emotional night at karaoke. The familiarity of the soundtrack is cathartic to audiences. Put simply, it gives Mommy its moments of joy.

The complex relationship between Die and Steve is explored in its varying facets onscreen

Mommy explores the complex relationship between Die and Steve in its varying facets

“I wanted to include songs that would have a private resonance with people and would make individual memories surface,” Dolan says. “For one person, [Oasis’s] ‘Wonderwall’ will make them think of a kiss; for another, a funeral, and on and on. When these memories surface, you have an audience contributing to the emotional impact long after the film has been completed.”

Mommy isn’t a feel-good movie, but it seems to have made people happy. People talk to me about the dancing, skating, and biking scenes that occur to songs by Celine Dion and Oasis, and how happy it made them.”

The case holding the CD that Steve returns to time and again is a square—a recurring shape for Mommy, with its distinctive aspect ratio. That shape is also how Dolan begins writing—with Post-its.

“I always start with patches of dialogue. I can’t help but think of dialogue in the genesis stage. It all remains very vague… then I childishly take this outline, make a board full of Post-its, and put them on the wall.” Dolan is slightly embarrassed about this police-procedural habit. “It helps me visualize the inequities in the acts. For instance, if act one is overflowing with Post-its, and act two is lacking them, I know that I need to cut, add, or move things around in order to balance it out. When it looks even, I’ll start to write, based on the flow of that wall.”

Dolan and Dorval have collaborated on four films to date since 2009’s I Killed My Mother. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

Dolan and Dorval have collaborated on four films to date since 2009’s I Killed My Mother. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

An early Post-it for Mommy contained just a year. Dolan wanted Mommy to be a portrait of our times, and he set the film one year ahead, in a fictional Canada of 2015. In this world, a bill has just been passed that makes it legal for a parent to turn their child over to the state to be housed, fed and confined, at no financial cost. Dolan wanted to present a mother with the heavy burden of that choice

“Governments are already abandoning the marginalized. They’re not trying to make them better, because that would actually cost money,” he says. “People don’t want to see their taxes spent on curing some freak who should be in jail because he’s potentially dangerous.”

Prior to Mommy, all three of his actors had worked with Dolan before: Clément on I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyways, Dorval in those two films as well as Heartbeats, and Pilon on his music video for French pop band Indochine’s “College Boy.” They were familiar with his tendency to join in on every scene from behind the camera. “I don’t really direct movies,” Dolan, who began his career as a child actor and has appeared in all four of his previous features, says. “I just act it out with the actors, off camera. I’ll watch from my monitor and crawl, like a beast, to get closer to the actors and whisper things while the scene goes on.”

“I don’t want to yell ‘Cut!’ and give notes. I prefer to keep rolling and ask them to incorporate notes. The actor in me sees the scene evolving, and I can’t help but share what I would do.”

Dolan lenses his next shot with actress Suzanne Clément, who plays Steve and Die’s shy neighbor Kyla. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

Dolan lenses his next shot with actress Suzanne Clément, who plays Steve and Die’s shy neighbor Kyla. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

The excitement of on-set interaction keeps Dolan in a perpetual moviemaking motion. Even though all of his films have gone through the film festival circuit, Mommy is the first to swoop Dolan himself down the film festival chute in the flesh. Before 2014, he had yet to take the plunge: “I could never go to the festivals before. I was always shooting another movie.”

Now he sees that each film is like running a marathon, not a sprint. “I’m actually meeting the audiences for the first time. It’s very inspiring. The fun, selfish part of filmmaking is the actual filming. But the other extremely important aspect is the audience response. I realized that I’d never witnessed that.”

Traveling with Mommy—which includes many intense verbal spats and uncomfortably Oedipal overtones—might feel like continual scab picking for Dolan. It serves, in its way, as an apology to mothers. “I didn’t make I Killed My Mother to punish my mom, but maybe I wanted to. With Mommy, I’m taking her point of view. Seeking her revenge.” Dolan adds with a laugh, “I’m a sadist.”

No doubt some of those Post-its were very personal. “I hold no grudge for being sent to boarding school,” he says earnestly. “I was a hyperactive kid, and my mom was single. My dad was not an option for me at the time. A schoolteacher thought the brightest thing he could tell my mom was, ‘Your son needs a lot of attention. He’s not responding very well to the environment that we can provide for him here, so he should go to boarding school and have many brothers and sisters in a new environment to explore.’”

“My mom was not especially thrilled about the skills required of a mom,” Dolan says. (At this point in our interview, he gets more comfortable, lying on his back as if in a therapy session.) “I don’t resent her. There are no manuals for mothers or sons or daughters. The first three years of my life in boarding school were amazing.” He elongates the “a:” amaaaazing. “It was an amazing start to my sexual life at a very, very early age. Little boys trying things; it wasn’t particularly unpleasant to me. Every Wednesday during the winter, we’d have no school, and we’d all go skiing with the nuns.” High school was a slightly different matter, as the student population included some local “hillbillies.” (“It was a little rough.”)

Although Dolan is nervous about a potential Oscar nomination (and about eating “too many finger foods” at agency screenings and becoming “so fat,” despite being movie-star handsome), with Mommy he’s already accomplished one of his major goals: getting into the competition category at the Cannes Film Festival. Last May, he shared a Jury Prize with legendary French auteur Jean-Luc Godard (Goodbye to Language). At 25, Dolan was the youngest of the filmmakers in competition; at 83, Godard was the oldest. Director Jane Campion, head of the jury, said she was “well aware” of the remarkable contrast.

Dolan, however, is not resting. He’s been patient with Mommy, but he has a new film coming together. It will be his first in English and will star Jessica Chastain, whom he met after a Mommy-adoring tweet the actress sent out at Cannes. The role is another tough Dolan woman—“a total bitch,” he notes with a grin. Under the working title The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the story concern the public downfall of a highly respected actor played by Kit Harington.

Dolan and DP Turpin on set.

Dolan and DP Turpin on set. Photograph by Shayne Laverdière

Although Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates are also on board, Dolan isn’t officially going Hollywood. He’ll still produce under the auspices of the Canadian system, which sets aside government money for films that fall under a certain budget and shoot in specific regions. Still, Dolan seems to be edging ever-closer to Hollywood spectacle. He promises that the film will be “Batmanesque.” “John F. Donovan is an epic. It’s very generous in terms of being…” (a pause while he looks up the right word on his phone) “…lavish. It’s very commercial. We’ll shoot in five cities. It will be fast-paced, constant motion.”

So maybe—to paraphrase Oasis—Mommy was the one that saved Xavier Dolan. After all, as the director and his growing audience is finding out, he’s proven that he can be commercial and be an auteur at the same time. MM

Mommy opened in theaters January 23, 2015, courtesy of Roadside Attractions. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2015 issue.

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