SPOILER WARNING!!!!!! This article spoils the entirety of Mommy. It would be advisable you watch the movie before reading it. I implore you to do so, it’s a feckin’ masterpiece.
Mommy ended up on my 2015 best list, coming in second only behind Birdman. With very good reason-Xavier Dolan’s excellent three-way drama has a lot of things going for it from an astonishingly talented filmmaker.
There is a lot I could talk about. I could talk about how excellent the cast are. How the three play off each other beautifully, are fully fleshed out and feel like real people, and how none of them feel shortchanged in terms of focus and screentime. Each actor brings their A-game and none of them miss a beat. I could talk about Dolan’s direction. How he managed to crop the aspect ratio for most of the film, paying that off thematically and yet cramming so much information in that very limited space. I could talk about the soundtrack. How each song plays off the emotion of the moment and feels appropriate despite it being a very pop-y selection and really recognisable. Hell, I even think Dido was used appropriately!
What I am going to talk about is not all that. It’s one scene. Just one. And it appears right near the end:
So I’m assuming you’re reading this having seen Mommy, and if you haven’t…please, I implore you again go see if. Trust me, it’s absolutely worth your time. But if you’re insisting that me prattling about this flick is better than seeing a work of art, here is a verrrrrrry quick summary of the plot:
In a fictionalised reimagining of Canada, a law was passed that allowed parents on a lower income bracket to commit their troubled children to a mental facility without regard for fundamental justice. The story follows mother and son Diane (Die) and Steve. They struggle to make ends meet after the Diane’s husband dies. Steve is a brash troublemaker with ADHD and violent tendencies, and Die is trying to keep him on the straight and narrow as she cannot afford to check him in for help without availing of the aforementioned law. Whilst moving into a new home, they befriend their neighbour Kyla, who herself is going through some hardships, and she agrees to tutor Steve. The three become tight knit and things are going great until Die and Steve are sued for an incident described early on in the film. The fallout of this eventually leads to Steve attempting to kill himself, and what we find out at the end of the sequence above is that Die agrees to have her son sanctioned.
The first thing to note about this is the aspect ratio: most of the film is shot in 1:1. It will, however, move to widescreen to symbolise when the characters are in a more emotionally secure place. This is displayed rather pointedly in the film to outline this to the audience; we literally see Steve ‘open up’ the frame. So, the audience is lulled into a false sense of security to think this IS the ending. That Steve went on to have a happy life and sort out his emotional issues. However, of course, it should be playing in the back of your mind that this is way too easy, especially as one of the last sequences we have seen was Steve hurting himself. The way this both plays on the audience’s emotions and trusts them to follow along is incredibly great filmmaking.
Next is that absolutely stunning score. The piece, as titled in the video, is Experience by Ludovico Einaudi, and it’s one of the primary sources of inspiration for this film. Dolan heard this piece and imagined this fantasy sequence whilst listening to it. It’s got such a pounding energy to it and yet is romantic and wistful. It truly emphasises the idea of imagining an impossible future and it kills me every goddamn time I hear it, especially with that key change. The title is rather apropos too: Experience. That’s what Die is doing right now. Because she can’t live it.
Hell, just look at how this scene is filmed. Every moment given the same weight and attention as if this was her reality; it’s real to her in that moment. Look at the way the lighting goes up as we go further into her son’s faux-life. Look at how the joyous rain just beautifully transitions him into another age-all the weight and pain of his youth just washing off. Just listen to all the voices, sound effects, bits of dialogue, all just far enough and in the distance to get that sense of unreality. That we’re ignoring all this unease just to be in this moment, just for one more second. Look at the way Die’s face at the wedding falls with the rhythm of the music. As she slowly begins to realise that none of this is real, that this is not what her life is, what her son’s life is, the aspect ratio falls. The walls close in, she comes back to her real life, her real moment. Brought on by her son’s voice coming into focus.
All of these things, and likely more, are reasons to praise this sequence (not to mention the excellently emotive acting from Anne Dorval). But it’s not just why I love it. And this is kind of difficult for me to talk about, so apologies if I’m being vague, but let me explain:
When I first saw this movie, I went through the worst experience of my life. I was still recovering from it. And when this moment started, when the music hit me, I was stunned. I honestly cannot describe what I was feeling, what was going on in my head. This moment so effortlessly captures what it’s like to imagine something that will never come to pass. And that just got to me. It’s rare that I connect to a moment of film so purely, so emotionally. It hit me in a place I didn’t really know I had left in me.
Film is wonderful for a lot of reasons. It can scare you, make you laugh, make you angry, make you cry. It can lift you to world’s unimagined and unreal, it can plop you down in endless reality and make you feel better you ain’t these people! It can be a comfort when no other thing feels like it can comfort you. But the one thing film can really do is help you. Heal you. Make you witness something and help you understand yourself. I’m glad this movie helped me get to that place. I hope other movies help you find that place, too.
Happy Father’s Day, everybody.