Dreaming Bigger, Screaming Louder: Xavier Dolan on Mommy
Québécois firecracker Xavier Dolan says he sees cinema as revenge against the mundanities of everyday life. With his brilliant new melodrama Mommy, that revenge is served piping hot
In May 2009, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. In May 2014, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. Just five years passed between the release of Dolan’s debut feature I Killed My Mother and his latest film, Mommy, but the difference we can see in the artist who made them is extraordinary. What looked like raw potential in 2009 has since been brilliantly realised.
Although the subject matter and the presence of Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément in the cast list may encourage us to draw comparisons between these two films, Dolan refutes any suggestion that Mommy is a revisitation of earlier themes. “A movie about mothers and sons is like a movie on human beings,” he tells me. “It really is just so vast a theme, and encompasses so many, many, many possibilities for characters who are defined by quests and dreams and personalities rather than just titles.” In general, Dolan is a man who is too busy looking forward to contemplate what’s behind him, but he is conscious of the progress he has made so far, admitting that he finds it hard to watch some of the more jejune moments in his first two features. “Certainly, every new film is a new opportunity, not necessarily to explore things you haven’t explored in previous endeavours, but more likely to avoid repeating mistakes you’ve made in those,” he explains.
As well as eliminating those mistakes, Dolan has ventured boldly into exciting new territory. After shooting his 2012 film Laurence Anyways in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Mommy finds the director squeezing the frame even further, utilising a 1:1 ratio that takes some getting used to but pays off spectacularly during the course of the film. He and his talented cinematographer André Turpin previously experimented with this style on a music video they made for Indochine’s College Boy (which also starred Mommy’s Antoine Olivier Pilon), but there’s a big difference between a technique working for a six-minute music video and a 139-minute feature. “I didn’t know Mommy was my next movie when I shot College Boy. I figured it out a couple of weeks later,” he tells me, “André and I realised that anything in the ‘middle-range’ shot-wise was a waste of our time; it was either close-ups, or very large shots. Anything in between was oddly inelegant, even ugly, and seemed completely incompatible with the square aspect ratio. It’s been used over centuries for portrait photography, and portraits really are what fill it in with the most sense, and harmony.”
It’s funny to hear Dolan talk about harmony in the context of Mommy, because this is a film largely defined by disharmony. With his characters often at each other’s throats and with every emotion being pushed to the limit, that tight frame seems ready to burst at every moment, and Dolan clearly relishes this type of storytelling. “I’m not interested in documentary-like restraint and pastel-toned characters acting like losers. It’s not that I only relish histrionic display and balls-to-the-wall scenes; there is a time for silences, and calm and rest, and I love to find the balance between both.” Mommy is a full-throttle melodrama and Dolan makes no apology for that; in fact he believes that cinema should offer a heightened alternative to our reality rather than a reflection of it. “I just think that life can be boring enough to the point where cinema is – more than any other media or art – its revenge. So characters are allowed to dream bigger, scream louder, cry uglier, sing better, dance without shame, and have the last say with sassy dialogue that they perhaps couldn’t come up with in normal life. They are allowed to win.”
"I fucking hate digital. It is lifeless, flat, soulless and a lie" – Xavier Dolan
Some subjects elicit a particularly passionate response from Dolan. Having begun his career shooting on digital, the director has since moved to 35mm, transitioning in the opposite direction to most contemporary filmmakers, and when asked about this choice his answer is unequivocal. “Look, with all due respect to masterful cinematographers and the tastes of other artists, I fucking hate digital,” he says. “It’s just ugly, and an absolute deception. It is lifeless, flat, soulless and a lie. Sometimes extremely talented people make it work, but there always is a scene where you see it, in the whites, in the trees, it just is a lie and it takes away the film’s life.” You can add Xavier Dolan’s name to those of Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and other fervent 35mm advocates, but Dolan is pessimistic about the medium’s future. “I just fear the time when film will disappear. I apprehend it so badly because I know that, when it happens, I’ll keep making movies but I’ll watch them and something will be forever missing. I’m afraid that would be life.”
For the time being, Dolan is still shooting on film and still making movies his way at his own phenomenal pace. He is currently in production on The Death and Life of John F Donovan – his first English-language feature, starring Kit Harington and Jessica Chastain – but he is already thinking beyond that film to the future. I ask him how far down the road he is looking and his answer surprises me: “Far, far, far down indeed. You never know what will go, and what won’t. So, I don’t know… I’d say… as far as six years down the road?” Xavier Dolan will only be 31 years old then, and considering the way his work has evolved over the course of the past five years, I’m relishing the prospect of seeing what he has produced at an age when most directors are only warming up. One thing is for sure – everything he makes will be produced with the same passion and intensity that has distinguished his films to date, and he has little time for critics who decry these aspects of his work. “I will never tone down my characters or deprive them of their traditional soliloquies and big eruptions just to please people who love sobriety, and tamed personas,” he states defiantly. “Cinema is a spectacle – wake up!”