An interview with MOMMY writer/director, Xavier Dolan.
It seems like nothing can stop Quebecois filmmaker, Xavier Dolan. At just 25 years old, he has five features already under his belt, including his beloved debut feature, I KILLED MY MOTHER. This year, he shocked festival goers at Cannes when he unleashed his latest film, MOMMY, which may prove to be his biggest success yet.
Both MOMMY and Dolan’s first film follow the intense relationship between a mother and a son, though each in its own drastically different way. I recently sat down with Dolan during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and he assured me that the two films couldn’t be more different. “I KILLED MY MOTHER‘s schemes are anecdotal compared to those of MOMMY, which are really about an existential crisis between two people who love each other more than the world. They love each other so much that they cannot live together, while I KILLED MY MOTHER is just a story about people who cannot live together because they’re incompatible,” Dolan explains, with a touch of severity in his voice. “People can make comparisons if they want, but I did MOMMY in a completely unrelated way. MOMMY is not a response to I KILLED MY MOTHER. It is not a comeback to the same reflections. It’s completely something else.”
Considering his stance on the difference between the two films, I had to wonder where the idea for MOMMY came from. “I’d say that I was ready to go back to mothers and their sons, but I realized I never really left them. They’ve always been in my movies somehow, sometimes in the background and sometimes really in the spotlight,” Dolan replies, clarifying his previous answer. He had been toying with the idea for a couple of years and it all came together for him when he shot a music video for Indochine’s “College Boy”.
Shooting “College Boy”, didn’t just help Dolan find his MOMMY lead actor, Antoine Olivier Pilon, who stars in the video, but it also inspired the film’s visual style. Like the music video, MOMMY is shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (think of an Instagram photo). To make a 5-minute video in this ratio is one thing, but what was it like to shoot a film that is over two hours long this way? “It certainly had its downsides,” Dolan says, laughing. “Ergonomically speaking, it’s hard to have everybody in the same shot. It’s a pretty narrow ratio, but mostly it was never conceived as a gimmick or a device. It was always just a way to get closer to the characters and avoid distractions on the left or right and just really focus on the human beings.” It is clear that Dolan is somewhat defensive when it comes to his style, and he has every right to be.
The aspect ratio is perfectly suited to the film. While it does take a few minutes to get used to, it certainly makes sense as a stylistic choice. In his last film, TOM AT THE FARM, Dolan narrows the aspect ratio horizontally in scenes of intense action. MOMMY uses a similar tool, having the aspect ratio widen to the standard 16:9 for two scenes. Dolan has said that the technique was used in TOM AT THE FARM to create tension, so what was its purpose in MOMMY? “It’s as easy as the first thing you would think of.” Dolan explains. “Why would a character open up like this?” he asks, spreading his arms out. “What do you feel when after an hour you’ve been watching a square and it opens up? What do you feel?” After a pause, I realize that he was actually asking me. I am a little taken aback so I say the first thing that came to mind, uttering, “Free, I guess.” Dolan smiles and says, “Well that’s what it is. It’s not more sophisticated or more intelligent or more surprising than that. It’s just that. It’s just a character in full control.”
And what of the matriarch at the centre of MOMMY? While Anne Dorval, who plays the title character, has appeared in all but one of Dolan’s films, this is the first time she has starred in one since I KILLED MY MOTHER, where she also plays the mother. The two work so well together, and Dolan is clearly very fond of Dorval and their working relationship. He smiles as he speaks of her. “I know Anne so well. Together what we want to achieve is variety and versatility. There’s no point obviously in repeating what we’ve done together in I KILLED MY MOTHER. So when I asked her if she wanted to be the mom, it was clear from the very beginning that the background would be different, the social background, the social history, the language, the vernacular, the costumes, the nails, and the hair.” Together, Dorval and Dolan show two very different types of mothers with some very distinct differences and some more subtle shifts. He continues, “Since I know her so well, we had this common desire to write a part that will reveal new sides to her acting palette.”
Watching the credits for Dolan’s films, one can’t help but notice his name pop up everywhere. The guy even did his own subtitling for MOMMY! How does he do it all? “I don’t have a personal assistant; I don’t have enough money for that. I don’t have a personal publicist; I don’t have enough money for that either. I receive something like three-hundred emails per day. There’s only me. I decided to design all my posters; I do the costumes; I edit the movie; I edit the trailer; and I do the press kit. I see no reason for any extension of an artwork to be made by someone else than the artist who originally had a vision for the film.” It sounds exhausting, and like some serious control issues, and looking at Dolan’s expression as he answers, it’s clear that doing it all can take its toll. “This is how it works; you’ve got tons of people who are responsible for tons of departments, but the fact is that I see things in a precise way and I love when they are exactly like that. But if someone on the way challenges me to see it in a different way and it’s more interesting, than I’m grateful.”
And grateful he should be, as all of his hard work continues to pay off. Dolan is now working on his English language debut, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN, starring none other than Jessica Chastain (herself a huge MOMMY fan). Also, in case you hadn’t heard, MOMMY has been chosen as Canada’s official entry in the Foreign Language Oscar race. I imagine his mother must be very proud.
MOMMY opens across Canada this fall, beginning in Toronto on October 3.