music friday: jeff beck
film fatales #159: take this waltz (sarah polley, 2011)

mommy (xavier dolan, 2014)

Well, that was an experience. Mommy is fascinating, excruciating, honest yet extreme. It was not a comfortable movie to watch, but it's not meant to be comfortable, and it's worth the effort if you can get past the excruciating part.

Mommy takes place in Québec, and is in French. I had seen only one film by Xavier Dolan, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, which was only OK (although it was much better than the reviews, which trashed it). Dolan was only 25 when he made Mommy, but it was already his fifth feature. I'm unfamiliar with the lead actors, although they have solid resumes ... I've just missed them. (To name them: Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément.) The story sounds promising enough: a widowed mother has a teenage son with ADHD who is violent at times, and we watch as she does what she can to keep him from being institutionalized. (We get a note at the beginning of the film informing us of a fictional Canadian law that allows parents to put their troubled kids away.)

But Dolan makes a decision that right away puts us in the center of this intense family. He uses a 1:1 aspect ratio (i.e., the screen is square) and has lots of closeups, which puts us literally in the faces of the characters as they go through their at-times traumatic emotions. Think of how Sergio Leone uses closeups to fill the screen with faces. His larger-than-life wide screen compositions mean those faces are often placed in the middle of an expanse of territory. Dolan gives us the closeups, but removes the expanse. Between the aspect ratio, the intense family drama, and the excellent acting, Dolan drags us into his story, and there is no escape. It's not a horror movie ... you aren't waiting for the next jump scare. But you often want to leave the room, to let these people have their privacy.

It's almost giving too much away to mention that for a brief scene, the screen opens up. I won't spoil the occasion for the change, but it has a definite effect on the viewer.

It's unfair to single out one of the actors, but Antoine Olivier Pilon as the teen is uncanny. He makes you forget he is acting, even as he is chewing the scenery ... he feels like the person he is playing. It's not the kind of amateur performance some directors use to make a character seem "real", but Dolan and Pilon force us to see what is inside the boy, and again, it's not comfortable. #384 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


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