Mommy was the winner of the Cannes Film Festival 2014 Palm D’Or. The film is another exemplary work from 26-year old visionary filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who already has other strong features under his belt such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, and Heartbeats. Dolan’s films are noteworthy for their visual experimentation and fantastic use of song. They bring to light the visual spectacle that the art of cinema can be capable of.
Mommy tells the story of a mother Diane who deals with her troubled son Steve, who is prone to bouts of intense anger, violence, and black moods. Making friends with their neighbor Kyla sparks the potential of hope in their lives. Mommy uses the visual medium of film to convey aspects of the story that simple dialogue and narrative could not do. Dolan chooses to film Mommy in 1:1 aspect ratio; think of an album cover (his direct inspiration) or Instagram. The small and confining aspect ratio does not leave for much in the frame. However, what it does allow is the audience to be trapped within the space as Diane is. It lets us live as Diane does with the turbulent and suffocating nature of their relationship, they are close to one another in both love and hate.
There are two moments in the film in film where the square aspect ratio is broken. The juxtaposition of the small 1:1 aspect ratio to the widescreen that audiences are used to makes for a breathtaking and beautiful visual moment, one which also reveals much about the inner life of Diane’s character. The frame widens in a moment of joy or break from the typical reality that Diane, Kyla, and Steve find themselves imprisoned within.
The first scene is as Kyla, Steve, and Diane are becoming more comfortable with one another. Kyla is homeschooling Steve while Diane is able to make money cleaning. Steve skateboards down the street as Diane and Kyla ride their bikes behind him. Steve wears headphones as the Oasis song Wonderwall plays. With his hands he pushes the screen wide open. It’s a refreshing and invigorating moment. The world has opened up for these characters, their worries seem far behind them. When you have a good week or day, the whole world seems brighter, bigger, and ready for the taking. This emotion, and it’s relationship with the three characters, is gorgeously captured with this visual device, one that cannot be replicated with mere dialogue. “Because maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me.” The lead singer belts out. Kyla’s newfound friendship and mentorship with Steve could be what saves him.
As the trio is making dinner, the doorbell rings. Diane answers and finds that she is being sued for the damages Steve caused setting the cafeteria on fire at his previous mental institution. The world comes crashing in on her, the happiness Diane has felt is gone. Her smile fades as the screen shrinks back to the confining square. Diane is once again enclosed in the unhappy truth of her world.
The second scene is set to a gorgeous composition entitled Experience by Ludovico Einaudi. The song itself is what inspired Dolan to write this scene. The aspect ratio expands over the city landscape as Diane, Kyla, and Steve go on a road trip. Diane watches Steve and Kyla frolic by the sea. The film cuts to a slow-motion montage. Steve bringing home a girlfriend, graduating from school, receiving an acceptance letter to college, getting married, having a baby. We then see a blurry close-up of Diane in slow motion, as the screen slowly shrinks back to the 1:1 aspect ratio. Then the camera cuts to Diane and Steve back in the car. Sadly, we realize that it was all just a dream. In the next heart wrenching scene, Diane brings Steve back to the mental hospital. There was no fun road trip in the beginning, this is what they were heading towards all along.
This montage is tragic, especially in light of the ending. It is the life which could have been for Diane Steve, and Kyla. Diane’s dreams of a happy life are expanded into widescreen, the hopes for a child that all parents dream of. These hopes for Steve will never come true. As the screen shrinks back, reality again is thrusted back to Diane. This montage is another moment for the audience to step into Diane’s shoes, to get swept up in the fantasy that this mother has for her child. The reality of her situation, that none of this is attainable for her son and is indeed only a dream, is truly devastating.
Both of these scenes are visual masterpieces that tell so much of the story without words. Film is a visual medium, and it is fascinating to see directors truly take advantage of the potentials that experimentation with it can bring. Dolan is a superior talent that should be watched out for. It is extraordinary that he is crafting such fine work at such a young age. The unique choice of a 1:1 aspect ratio for Mommy was a stunning one, effectively putting the audience in the minds and world of the characters.