As images from Xavier Dolan’s latest film Mommy flood my mind like memories still hot with emotion, I can almost hear the faint whisper of a line from Marguerite Duras’s essay “House and Home”: Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.
At 25 years old, the prolific French-Canadian filmmaker is at his psychological best when grappling with the complicated nature of the everyday intimate relationships that make up our lives. With his films—from I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats to Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm—it’s not one traumatic inciting incident that flares off the narrative and brings us into the story, but a series of everyday hardships we’re forced to endure, be it through the pains of familial drama, romantic love, abject obsession, or inescapable fear.
As a more mature and intelligent continuation of themes explored in his debut feature I Killed My Mother, Dolan again presents a harrowing mother and son relationship with Mommy, starring newcomer Antoine-Olivier Pilon and the phenomenal Anne Dorval, (a frequent Dolan collaborator), as Steve and Diane aka Die. As an out-of-work, widowed, single mother, Die finds herself with full-time custody of 15-year-old Steve, whose ADHD makes him nothing short of a terror to live with.
His violent temper and disinterest in school leave Die struggling, until one day they meet their quiet new neighbor Kyla (played by the extraordinary Suzanne Clement), a school teacher on sabbatical who begins to heal the family’s open wounds and provide a sense of balance in their lives. But as is often the case with a Dolan film, it’s not only the dramatic nature of the storyline that guides us, but also the amalgamation of sight and sound he creates—roller coaster-like in its velocity of highs and lows.
Projected in a 1:1 aspect ratio, as if shot on a cell phone, and enlivened by a soundtrack featuring everything from Celine Dion (a staple of his films) and Counting Crows to Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding, Mommy feels like Dolan’s most evolved film yet. So with Mommy rolling into theaters tomorrow, we sat down with the talented filmmaker to discuss the thrill of experimentation, his deep connection to music, and the fascinating women that populate his films.
When I go into a film, I’m looking to have some kind of visceral reaction that’s going to engage my emotions completely. I appreciate your films because I know that experience, for me, is always a guarantee. Is that something you’re conscious of and something you look for in the films you watch?
That’s great. Yeah, you know I don’t think anyone seeks a passive reaction or indifference. There is nothing worse than that, and I feel like so far my movies have elicited a very passionate reaction, whether it’s negative or positive. It’s always a blessing because then you know that you don’t bore people at least or that things don’t just slide off their backs. So I’m happy you have that kind of reaction because that’s the best thing I could hope for.
I was really glad that I was able to catch Tom at the Farm when MoMA screened it last winter—
It’s going to get distribution in the U.S. in some theaters and on VOD. I’m happy it’s finally happening, I was really sad that it did nothing for a while. I’m really proud of Tom and glad that people get to see it. It’s one in which I act and I love acting.
Thinking about the trajectory of your work, I feel like Laurence Anyways was the perfect amalgamation of your first two films: the potent emotion and psychological anguish of I Killed My Mother infused with the aesthetic pleasure of Heartbeats to create your most fully realize film to date. But then with Tom, that was a real departure from those three ad felt like an experiment of its own.
For me, Tom is a separate experiment entirely because it’s walking off the path. It’s walking into the wood, really. So that’s great, and something I’ll keep doing all my life, because I love that challenge. I think what I loved about Tom was really resisting my automatic temptations and my most basic instincts. There is something very inspiring in that resistance, something very satisfying when you feel that you have achieve resisting that.
As a writer, director, and actor, I’m sure it must be inevitable to put a part of yourself into each character you write.So with Mommy, how much of yourself is in that script and how much of you is in Steve?
I put very much of myself in every character. It isn’t only Steve that I can relate to, but he is the character whom which I’ve injected the most of myself and instilled my personality the most. We have this very rageful angst and this anger that builds up in ourselves. When I was a kid I was extremely violent, and still am I guess, so I can understand him. Fortunately, I have found a way to challenge and channel these vices, which isn’t the case for Steve who has no vehicle for these emotions.
The relationship between Steve and Die felt like a continuation of the dynamic established in I Killed My Mother. What I find interesting in both of those relationships is the cycle of emotions these people go through on a daily basis. They have this violent blow-outs, grieve for their relationship, feel the guilt of the way they behaved, and then snap back and are joking around with each other and cooking pasta the next moment.
For them, we can’t have them react or digest these arguments and this crisis like we do as an audience. For them it is very much part of their routine, it’s petty and trivial to them. If they were making a big deal out of these scenes they’d be telling us how to feel, right?
Music has always been a key element in your films, and especially in Mommy where there’s an established mix tape soundtracking it. Do you write certain scenes around specific songs?
As I very often do. Music comes very, very early on for me. When I write, some scenes are excuses for songs, but you want them to be worthy excuses though, not only a display. I’ve written a film after having heard a song once, which is very telling of how music can be influence me. It’s not a movie that’s been released.
My favorite song in the film is Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience.” It’s a song I’ve loved for its all-encompassing emotion and sadness and the scene you chose to pair it with couldn’t have been more perfect.
When I heard that song, I did experience something very powerful. I thought that this song is just so beautiful and coveys all the notes, melodies, and tonalities that echo the emotions, feelings, and sensations that I love and that speak to me. There’s nostalgia, melancholy, the Fall, the leaves, and all these sensorial things that I cannot describe very eloquently but are things that I try to feature into my films. And once they’re there, it’s either invisible or more visible, and a song like “Experience” was holding all of these things.
Did you write Mommy as a stage for these actors? Your films tend to have such fantastic roles for woman, and in this, Anne and Suzanne give some of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. How did you work with them to build who these women were and differentiate from the roles they’ve played for you before?
Yes, I wrote it for the actors, as I often do. I don’t do it for every role because I love working with new people, but I don’t audition a lot. I do for some parts, but the lead roles are written for the actors. The pleasure in writing these roles specifically for them, is in finding and curating every little detail so that they really exist outside of the their main narrative lines and psychological and physical arcs. Every gesture and every detail has its place and is carefully and meticulously found with the actor—how they laugh, how they cry, etc.
Knowing Anne and Suzanne in real life, and I’m pretty sure it would be the same even if e weren’t friends, the point of any character is to escape who you are. It’s not always a possibility, and not every role is a complete composition, but the idea is not always that people won’t recognize you. Sometimes a good performance will exist in a very simple way if the lines are good and the acting is good. You don’t always become someone else.
But in the case of Anne and Suzanne, what was interesting was that they had already embodied similar figures in my films–those of moms and teachers. So the point was really to step as far away as possible from those characters. That’s something I know, as actors, they would want to achieve. But where it’s even more interesting, knowing them in real life, I know how they cry and laugh and fight and scream and walk and talk, so having these details is important so that even themselves in the end can be surprised with their performance.
That was the most challenging, but they ended up being proud of certain scenes. I’m talking about women who won’t look at themselves and hate themselves when they look at themselves on screen. Suzanne literally could not look at herself when she came for ADR. I would show her some other scenes and she would be all excited, but with hers she didn’t want to see herself.
Speaking of fantastic actresses and someone who is very vocal about female roles, I was just interviewing Jessica Chastain and she spoke about how excited she is to have met you and to be working on The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.
She’s the best, isn’t she? She’s so sweet and she’s been so sweet to me. She was really a blessing in my life. My film with her is a take on Hollywood’s impact on the private life of celebrities and how, through the prism of the media and journalism, actors are seen, as well as the responsibility of fame. It’s a take on Hollywood, but not really from an inside point of view, but its impact is in a very private, very intimate way. So it’s how a celebrity’s life changes as soon as they become famous.