Monday, March 9, 2015

A most innocuous enfant terrible: Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)

Like a big Chekhov's gun with the price tag still attached inevitably destined to go off in the final act  no real spoiler here  a sci-fi premise opens Xavier Dolan's latest film: in the year 2015, a superimposed text informs, a Canadian law is enacted that allows parents of mentally ill children to give them in full and irreversible custody to the state's health care system. This not only gives us a rather precise idea about where the story is going to end, but also speaks volumes about how superficial is going to be Dolan's approach to mental illness. Because how blinkered you have to be to ignore how inadequately, to put it mildly, institutions have treated and still treat psychiatric disorders in most societies, and to even make a futuristic preamble out of a burning social problem. The longstanding issue of whether psychiatric patients should be taken care of by the government or the family has no simple solution; involuntary seclusion, and I'm not complaining, is still applied when they threaten other people's safety or their own, with great sadness on the part of the families and those involved. By just setting his movie in the present day Mr. Dolan would have had as much tragedy as he liked.

You may think I have it in for Xavier Dolan given that I disliked his previous work quite a lot. Just the opposite. I had high hopes about Mommy, not least because of the success it had at Cannes last year and some recommendations from friends I used to trust (please note the past tense). But I admit that the intro turned my disposition from seraphic to hostile, and what followed pretty much confirmed my first impression.

The film features Anne Dorval as Diane "Die" (phooey) Després, a widowed single mother with problems of alcoholism who resolves to take charge of her mentally troubled and often violent son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) after his release from a juvenile detention center due to serious antisocial behavior. (I guess that setting fire to the institution's cafeteria can rightly qualify as "antisocial".) In what is perhaps the film's most truthful moment, the discharging nurse prophetically warns Diane: "Love isn't enough." Cohabitation doesn't begin under the best auspices; as Diane struggles to contain Steve's hyperkinetic behavior, she also has to fight her inner demons and provide financial stability to the newly-recomposed family. The blossoming friendship with timid neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément) breathes fresh air into Diane and Steve's turbulent lives; in helping Diane with her son's education, Kyla too will learn something.

The nearly symbiotic dynamics at work within this oddly matched trio could have been the most engaging part of the film; too bad that the characters' personalities seem to have been based on a DIY psychology manual. Diane is unconvincing as an alcoholic; she often has a bottle at hand, and yet never appears even remotely tipsy. Kyla's stammer miraculously disappears when she's at Diane's place, but suddenly returns as soon as she sets foot in her own garden  a sort of emotional switch that signals her psychological discomfort. As for Steve, he's intelligent and sensitive in spite of all his problems, but (Spoiler Alert in red) he can't help screwing up the crucial night that will decide his destiny. Such knee-jerk behavior, hard to explain within the story context, is best clarified by Jessica Rabbit's famous words: "I'm just drawn that way." And in the way Mommy's characters are drawn I recognize a trend that's getting more and more common in cinema, that of bestowing characters with apparently complex psychological traits that have the convenient advantage of being immediately identifiable by an average educated audience. As we watch Steve's hyperkinetic behavior, we feel pleased to recognize those symptoms that conventional wisdom associates with ADHD disorder. Similarly, Kyla's intermittent stammer confirms our preconceptions about psychosomatic disorders. (I've already complained elsewhere about this practice.)

It's also worth spending some words on what has become the most discussed technical feat of the movie. Mommy begins with a rather oppressive 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect square, which is atypical. But a later, pivotal scene shows Steve euphorically skating around the city streets, and culminates with him widening the screen with his own hands to a more usual 1.85:1 rectangular format (and it'll change again in the course of the film). When I reviewed Dolan's Tom at the Farm a few months ago — a terrible movie, since you asked  I wrote that I couldn't figure out why he employed a variable aspect ratio. After watching Mommy, I'm left with the same perplexity. Not that I don't understand the purpose behind that choice, which is more than transparent  Dolan wants the film's visual style to be in tune with the characters' changing mood, so that he shifts from a claustrophobic, Polaroid-style ratio to a more spacious widescreen format depending on how we are supposed to feel at a specific point in the story. However, a posteriori explanations like this one are often an easy way to express praise without going into an essential question: could the same purpose have been fulfilled with equally (if not more) effective but less flamboyant techniques? If we evade this question, one day we could well end up justifying a filmmaker's inconsistent camerawork on the basis that it conveys, say, the protagonist's bewilderment. With the benefit of retrospection, we can more or less account for any stylistic choice as long as we are creative enough.

I'd suggest that working on more conventional techniques like mise-en-scene, staging, actors' makeup etc. would have yielded a similar, if not more powerful, effect. Perhaps the best way to show this is to provide a counterexample: compare the shots below from Mulholland Drive. In the first shot, Betty's naive enthusiasm is conveyed through warm colors, cozy setting, and lively makeup. By contrast, in the second shot the acid green furniture combined with Naomi Watts's half-disfigured look (I struggled to recognize her on my first viewing!) are powerful visual cues of an imminent nervous breakdown. It goes without saying that David Lynch doesn't announce these tonal shifts with a big billboard, nor would he dream of changing aspect ratio on the fly.

And now tell me if you don't feel a shift in mood between these scenes (and you still haven't heard Angelo Badalamenti's now dreamy, now nightmarish soundtrack). Of course, a thousand such examples could be supplied, for a constant aspect ratio is the norm. Even when the norm is infringed, though, filmmakers are not necessarily aiming for grandeur. A recent example is Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the three historical periods in which the story is set are shot in as many distinct aspect ratios. In this case, a variable screen format fulfills the need to make the three temporal layers clearly distinguishable in a way that is consistent with the periods depicted and the film's playfulness as well. Anderson's solution also demonstrates that you can play with aspect ratios without necessarily drawing attention to the device itself; indeed, one could watch Budapest Hotel and miss that aspect entirely (ahem).

These examples show how disproportionate Dolan's choice is with respect to his needs, and how inaccurate is our first explanation for why he alters the screen format. Every movie involves to a certain degree a change in mood from scene to scene; thankfully as yet this hasn't turned our screens in a delirious ballet of frames expanding or shrinking according to the director's whims. Just to be clear, all filmmakers have the unalienable right to alter the screen dimensions as they wish; but why get out the heavy artillery when a fly swatter will do? Apparently, Dolan's manipulation of the aspect ratio has less to do with artistic vision and more with a vision of himself as an artist. In fact, having a character expanding the frame says a lot more about the filmmaker than the character himself, since it drastically shifts our attention from the story to the storyteller  no more an invisible presence that orchestrates the film but a cumbersome master of ceremonies who puts his unmeasured talent on display for our delectation. Which is more than enough to alienate THIS blogger's sympathies for a long while.

That Mommy shared the Jury Prize with Godard's Adieu au Langage at the 67th Cannes Film Festival seems to me totally amazing: they couldn't be more different works. While the former puts to shame most 3D movies produced till then with a truly experimental approach, the latter goes for sensation, and resorts to the magician's worn-out tricks to hook viewers to their seats. If Adieu au Langage lives at the periphery of film art and challenges its long-established norms, Mommy is the tame work of one of the most innocuous enfants terribles cinema has memory of.

P.S. For the record, Steve isn't the first movie character to claim his living space on the screen.

Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck.

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