We’re all familiar with the XD face. The emoticon intended to, turned 90 degrees on its side, represent an uncontrollable, sort of fucked up guffaw — like LOLing to death. This internet smiley shares its initials with a certain Xavier Dolan, and by all means could be just the expression the triple threat’s inner thoughts are making right now, if only in celebratory fashion. Dolan just spent some time at TIFF for the following: 1) the world premiere of Charles Binamé’s “Elephant Song” in which he plays antagonist to the likes of Catherine Keener and Bruce Greenwood, and 2) the first English Canada screenings of “Mommy”, his wild fifth feature which played in Toronto to sold out auditoriums on the latest stop of its world tour, with Dolan at the forefront as current rockstar of the cinéworld.
But that doesn’t mean the filmmaker is spending loads of time kicking back and basking in his achievements. In the beginning of his conversation with Indiewire’s Peter Knegt this week, the latter says about Xavier’s work ethic: “I just don’t know how you find that energy.” Laughing a bit, Dolan responds: “Me neither. That’s why I had a nervous breakdown that spring.”
The act of breaking down, and I mean like seriously losing it, is a common occurrence in “Mommy”. The film could very well be summarized using that bold XD face: its balls-to-the-walls hilarity is interwoven with an equal amount of helplessness-rendering emotion. It is also a film that, unlike many others, embraces today’s youth culture. “It would just be an extraordinary message to people my age and my generation”, said Dolan on being the frontrunner for taking home the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May. Steve Després (played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon, the most gorgeous adolescent we’ve seen onscreen since Xavier was killing his mother) is practically a caricature of the Bieberesque modern male, with classic lines including “Freakin’ A!” and “Like a boss.” The 1:1 aspect ratio screams Instagram, and one of the most poignant scenes manages to reach its peak when the characters stop what they’re doing to take a selfie together.
In fact, “Mommy” is simultaneously the most out-there and moving portrayal of family dynamic since Terrence Malick’s“The Tree of Life”. Both use music in a similar not-so-subtle way, never ceasing to pound on the emotional impact with those grandiose cues. At a Toronto Q&A Dolan said, “I want music to be the spirit of my films. When compiling the soundtrack for Mommy, I chose songs that would summon memories in the audience. What bar were you at the first time you heard Wonderwall? Who were you kissing? Was it prom night? Were you the queen?” For viewers in their teens and 20s the soundtrack resonates hard, even surpassing the nostalgia achieved in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, a film whose aim is almost memory recall. It won’t work for all. This isn’t Michael Haneke. But it’s come to the point when, whereas telling someone to “grow up” is the common insult, I’d like to suggest to Dolan’s naysayers that they “grow younger.”
But the critics and the trolls are gradually easing up. “Some of them are extremely hateful towards not the movies themselves but me. And I know that for some people I have no credibility because I’m young and I guess people think I’m brash and whatever they have this idea of me even though we’ve never met, and they just base their opinions on short filmed interviews where they think ‘that’s who he is’. But you know you can’t really tell who someone is before you’ve met them, and my movies are also so personal that I feel the people hating on my movies would be people hating me sort of. Because I put so much of my privacy and my personal stories in my movies. That’s how I feel, but with Mommy I’ve read some people finally writing reviews in a tone, in a fashion… It doesn’t read off anymore as someone who’s correcting my own work. Giving me a tap on the shoulder and saying ‘Congratulations, kid.’”
The artist as a young man has clearly developed over the winding course of his filmography. Dolan claims he cannot stand the void attached to the rear end of time spent on the film fest circuit: “You go home and you know, you’re like pressing buttons on the alarm system and there’s a silence and the anxiety… I feel like I have to sort of see what’s coming and when there’s nothing… I got worried that I had nothing to do or nothing to create.” Out of this, his most acclaimed picture to date was born. “I heard this song from Ludovico Einaudi, who’s a great composer, and a friend was playing that song and I was like ‘woah that song is great, I love it’ and by hearing that song I wrote a dream sequence in ‘Mommy’ where the character of Die sort of foresees this dream of the life that she’ll never have. It’s a sort of flash forward, and this is the first scene I wrote because I heard that song. And then I wrote the script all around that sequence, that precise sequence.”
XD’s usual suspects Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément are stellar — big surprise — as a trash-infused mother with a mission and the enigmatic speech-impaired neighbour, respectively. “I don’t only write parts for these women, I write movies for them. I can hear their voice, I know them, and I think that what’s really challenging me and them is that we share a common desire for things that are extremely far from what they’ve done. And since I know them so well in real life, I think it’s challenging for me and them to write roles that bring them somewhere else where we can on set say ‘No, here I can recognize you’ and ‘Here you did that’ and ‘Here I can see your little eye thing,’ and then we watch the whole thing and we’re satisfied with the conviction that they truly went somewhere else. I think any director has the ambition of hearing someone say ‘Oh that actor in his movie — we’ve never seen him like this before.’”
The film itself is pretty much incomparable to anything else. It’s bizarre, vulgar, and sometimes the best way of putting it would be “avant-garde tearjerker. Just see it, bro.”
What happens after the lights go down on “Mommy”? Dolan claims to be working on a big-budget English-language feature entitled “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan”. All he’s let us know is that it concerns a successful Hollywood actor who begins a correspondence with an 11 year old boy, so I Guessica Chastain we’ll just have to wallow in anticipation for more news.
“‘Mommy’ is letting you sit at the Big Boys’ table now and that’s what you’ve always wanted,” Knegt remarks. The 25-year-old seated across, an uncertain but seemingly bright future ahead of him, smiles. “I’m sitting at a cool table now. I’m happy.”