Cannes Film Festival Jury Award winner and Canada’s entry for foreign language (French) Oscar consideration is Mommy, a story inspired by an article about a mother who was so completely overwhelmed by the impulsive, violent nature of her son that, in fear for her life, she dropped him off at a hospital for the mentally ill. Writer-director Xavier Dolan thought the article should be a movie one day, and now he has brought it to the screen in a film that, despite the dark subject matter, is filled with hope.
With his background as an actor from a young age, Dolan is especially sensitive to performance. He is not married to what he has written. As part of his ongoing process during the making of the film, the dialogue evolves as the actors embody their characters.
“I change the dialogue myself during the scenes. As I hear things, I want to subtly call out, ‘Say that. Incorporate it in the scene right now, let’s not cut,’” explained Dolan. “I have a way with actors. At a certain point, they know if they hear me say something, they just say it right away. We’re trying to avoid overlaps, but this is how we try to keep a scene spontaneous and fresh.”
Because the story is based upon character interactions, the camera goes in close, studying the faces of the actors to capture what they are thinking and how they are reacting. Dolan never had to develop a cinematic language to communicate with veteran cinematographer André Turpin.
“We just agree on things,” said Dolan. “We work for a movie for which we have the exact same understanding. If not, we share our ideas and we confront each other, but we never had to learn to understand each other. It was natural and fluid. Meeting an artist with whom you create like that is such a blessing.” Dolan feels they have a synchronicity in their relationship. They are there for each other. “When I’m off, he’s on and when he’ s off, I’m on. It’s just symbiotic.”
The first scene written for the film – a scene not even written for Mommy – Dolan wrote as a fantasy sequence, where the mother imagines the perfect life for her son. The director had heard a song that inspired him. “This song is about a woman who sees the life she will never have, who dreams of that life, who abandons herself to the craziest fantasies – the classic American dream of grandchildren, of Ivy league studies for her kids, big weddings – it was all that,” revealed Dolan.
When Dolan realized the sequence belonged in Mommy, he knew it was not going to be real. It was not the future. It was a dream and when she wakes up from that dream it was going to be a nightmare. From its initial conception, he had always envisioned the blurred focus and impressionistic style that created a different visual space from the rest of the film.
Even though there is a dark spiral in the film, it is not shot like a downer. He wanted it shot like it was on the beach. Dolan told Turpin, “It’s gonna be so bright. It’s gonna be yellow and orange and pink and red. It’s gonna be like the sunset and the sunrise, and in colors that don’t make sense at that moment.”
The costumes were also very colorful and Dolan takes a credit for styling the wardrobe, in particular the clothing worn by Die, the mom (Anne Dorval), who dresses up like a teenage girl. Despite her age, she is not grown-up in her fashion sense. “The costume will be the first line of a character. Before a character opens his mouth, the costume has spoken,” explained Dolan. “It’s so important what you do with a costume.”
In every scene Die seemed to have different colored manicures with stickers on her nails, a detail that was in the script. “Those are details that you need to be thinking of very early,” said Dolan. She also had tattoos – one on her arm, as well as one on her neck that is seen only once. Makeup wanted to know if that detail was necessary. It was because it was a window into her character. “It tells you so much about her. So much more than all her screams and her speeches,” shared Dolan.
Unlike his mother, the wardrobe for Steve, the son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), was more thrown together in a mixed up way. “Mixed up patterns of camouflage and stripes.” Dolan added, “He doesn’t really give a shit. He’s not thinking about it.” The only piece of clothing that Dolan wanted for the boy was an oversized leather jacket that had belonged to his deceased dad. It was a symbolic way for the boy to show that he was taking the man’s place in the household.
The neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), was totally “norm corps” in the way she dressed. She wore little flower patterns, beige, sensible pumps and an A-line skirt. Dolan noted, “But as the movie goes on, she starts aping Die color-wise, wearing bolder colors. She morphs into a younger, fresher person. She is sort of rejuvenated by this friendship.”
Dolan has been working with his art director Colombe Raby for three movies. “With her decorator [Pascale Deschênes], we’re a team. We understand each other so well,” said Dolan. For Dolan the film takes place in one of the trickiest zones of production design, which is showing a working-class environment. “In modern cinema, I think – and I don’t understand why – we project on the environment of characters the amount of money they have in their bank account, which doesn’t make sense. The walls don’t have to be grey. The clothes they wear don’t have to be stupid, fit badly and look cheap. I feel like we mock them a lot.”
Even though the characters may be working class, the lighting need not be dark. There does not need to be filth and grime under their nails. “That poverty porn, those aesthetics are so inelegant,” commented Dolan. “When we painted that apartment, we were thinking of all the ways to brighten it up in a realistic way for her means and her background. We didn’t want her place to look miserable.” Because she is “a princess,” her bed was piled with satin throw pillows and veiled in feminine curtains.
As an independent filmmaker, Dolan wears many hats, including that of editor. As he writes the screenplay, he pictures how he will edit the footage. Some parts from the script were dropped, but the story did not change much between the written version and the final on-screen version. Postproduction was mostly “classic editing and problem solving,” according to Dolan. “The traditional things that you want to make seamless in the editing room.”
The film was shot in two blocks, which allowed Dolan to edit the movie they had, so that he could then pinpoint what was lacking in the footage. “In terms of what was left to shoot, we were in the position to say that we have a lot of that, but not enough of that,’” said Dolan. “In the first act, we had a lot of scenes, but a lot of scenes were missing, so it felt like the writing was a little too generous in the first act, and there was a need for certain sorts of scenes in the second act.”
Dolan thinks sound design. To him dialogue and writing are about musicality. “Editing is really about the relationship between image and sound,” remarked Dolan. “The movie is like a music sheet. Every note has its place. Every sound has its place. Every word has its place. And the number of words and the number of sounds. When you are editing that sound, it’s like music.”
Dolan has worked with sound designer and re-recording mixer Sylvain Brassard on all his films. On their first films together, Dolan was very nervous about what he heard and would respond with panic, thinking the designer did not understand the film. “The first hearing of sound work, I think is always a catastrophe,” Dolan admitted. Now when the director goes to the audio suite to listen to the first pass on the sound, even though the soundscape is incomplete, he realizes Brassard has built the foundation. Dolan continued, “I open my mouth and he stops me. ‘Is that what you were going to say?’ Mostly for me it is about working with these allies, these people with which you share so much, who care about the film, about the storytelling.”
After festival screenings around the world, Dolan has gathered comments and impressions about the film from numerous people. “What people bring home is the hope,” he concluded. “That is what I wanted to do.”