How Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’ Uses Maudlin ’90s Music to Illuminate Male Adolescent Rage


[Note: There are some spoilers below. But also know that Mommy isn’t the kind of movie that can be “spoiled” with plot details.]

Xavier Dolan seems to love maudlin ’90s music; Heartbeats featured Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” Laurence Anyways included Celine Dion’s “Pour que tu m’aimes encore” and Craig Armstrong’s “Let’s Go Out Tonight.” But the filmmaker, in interviews, has revealed himself to be entirely self-aware of his unbridled usage of equally unbridled tunes: “Music was the only voice of cinema for a very long time before we had sound; it’s organically linked to cinema itself. So I see no reason to restrain myself, thinking how much music to put in the film.” Yet his musical methodology — or lack thereof — never fully worked until now. None of Dolan’s previous films have relied on the rapture of ’90s sentimentalism more than, or as conceptually aptly as, his newest film, Mommy, which sees US release on January 23.

The list of songs that figure prominently in Mommy is a trip down every millennial’s normcore memory lane: the Counting Crows, Dido, Oasis, Celine Dion, and Andrea Bocelli are all crucial contributors. If you didn’t associate his films with the attractive, trendily coiffed millennial twink who made them, you might think the ghost of Mervyn’s past had curated the soundtrack.

Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery” announces Dolan’s mushy musical stratagem just after the film’s clinical, sci-fi-reminiscent beginning. Over a black screen, text appears, declaring that what we’re seeing is a fictitious Canada of 2015, where a new law enables parents of troubled/violent minors to institutionalize them. Before we see a single image, the film has already suggested the confinement of padded cells and straitjackets. Then, the first shot reveals that the whole movie is, and will remain visually trapped in, a claustrophobic, Polaroid (or Instagram)-like 1:1 aspect ratio. As McLachlan plays, we’re introduced to the battle between the technical constraints of the filmmaking and the lack of emotional constraint in the ’90s balladry it worships: the battle parallels that experienced by the movie’s main character, Steve O’Connor Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon).

Fifteen-year-old Steve has just been released from his school for troubled minors on account of being a little too troubled: he started a fire in the cafeteria that gave another student second-degree burns. He returns to his mother, Diane “Die” Després (played by the incredible Anne Dorval), with whom his relationship reveals itself to be loving, destructive, violent, and verging on sexual (I’d call this a spoiler if the trailer and the above photo hadn’t already spoiled it). Mommy focuses entirely on the tense triangle between Steve, Die, and their mysterious neighbor, Kyla, who, with her trauma-induced stutter, becomes, like the cinematography, a physical embodiment of restraint, contrasted to Steve’s lack thereof. The tight aspect ratio, Dolan has said, is the “ideal structure for portrait shots” because “the character is our main subject, inescapably at the centre of our attention.” But Steve’s frantic behavior, echoed in the music, often resists such narrow perspective.

In one scene, synced to the Counting Crows’ “Color Blind,” Steve spins in circles with a stolen shopping cart while the camera’s limited scope tries desperately to keep up and center the shot on him; in almost Baz Luhrmann-esque fashion, the dated ballad nearly commandeers the film with its emotiveness. Is this musical number actually taking place, or is the song splitting the narrative into “reality” and musically induced daydream? If you were wondering why, in a film that makes a point of setting itself in the very near future, there’s so much ’90s here, this scene may hold the answer.

During this sequence, Steve is also listening to music on his phone; from his gestures, and from the very faint blips we can make out through “Color Blind,” it seems to be a more recent rap song. While Steve postures as a tough guy (for despite his actual violence, his mannerisms all seem expressive of a great deal of adolescent posturing) atop his skateboard, he jerks his arms violently, as if to convey to himself and to the neighborhood that he’s a (little, white) thug listening to some hardcore rap. Dolan, however, never reveals what Steve’s actually hearing: he acknowledges his own heavy directorial manipulations by suggesting the rap song is what we should be hearing, but aren’t, because Dolan can intervene at any point and blanket us in iconically obsolete bliss.

Unlike many of Dolan’s other films, this is not a work of queer cinema in the traditional sense — the few central characters we see are heterosexual. But Dolan remains, as is shown in his musical choices, fully and awesomely concerned with gender. When a film that follows a kid whose male adolescent rage threatens both himself and everyone around him syncs its story to only the most emasculating-insomuch-as-2010s-masculinity-is-concerned of tunes — tunes that Dolan, myself, and surely a great number of queer millennials grew up using as emotional support — it’s making some kind of statement.

In this case, the music seems to suggest there’s more to Steve than pure rage, pure violence, pure destructive masculinity. Like the film, with its visual presentation of the 2010s and its sonic recollection of the 1990s, it’s something of a nauseating internal pastiche that’s making Steve so unable to cope with his simultaneous desires to embrace and destroy the world. It’s the fact that he possesses an acute sensitivity as well as a penchant for hideous violence and vulgar language (Tabernac!). It’s the fact that ADHD doesn’t let his mind sit still for long enough to resolve into anything but pastiche. It’s the fact that he is at once his mother and his dead father, and that in being so much closer to his mother than anyone else, Steve is at once infantile and overexposed to adult dramas. It’s the fact that he might try to build up his nascent manhood by listening to music he sees as toughening, but that he also might — as if unaware that it could make him a laughingstock — pick a dorkily sweet Andrea Bocelli song to sing at karaoke. Then there’s the fact that Mommy is not just his story, but his mother’s (thank fucking God) — that his musical proclivities aren’t even his own, but his mother’s.

This karaoke scene is telling. Steve starts off singing, seeming tone-deaf but almost angelic. Then, of course, he gets made fun of and goes gremlin on the bar, nearly slitting someone’s throat with a piece of shattered glass. Most people transition into adolescence — it’s awkward, but children become adults, girls become women, boys become men, etc. Here, though, his child side and his adult side are at war; the masculine side he’s overemphasizing and the feminine side that relates to his mother, and that’s brought out in the music, are similarly at war. And the rambunctiousness this induces puts him at war with his mother, and generally with society.

In the film’s most important sync, a follow-up to the Counting Crows reverie, Steve, Die, and Kyla bike through the neighborhood, each for a moment content to have found themselves among equal misfits. It all seems to have fallen into place, and Oasis’ “Wonderwall” plays. The song’s acoustic sensitivity finally overtakes the film and its characters: Steve parts the screen, widening the film’s confining aspect ratio. For a minute, the sonic daydream conquers the film’s visual prison. The “Wonderwall”-scored shattering of the 1:1 construct suggests the potential freedom these characters could experience, beyond societal pressures.

Then constraint pushes back: then it’s back to the (literal) box of the film’s original format. And Steve clearly doesn’t like the literal or figurative box, so he continues to push. And as Steve gets rowdier, he’s more likely to need to be restrained by society.

A while ago, I wrote about how the mental institution was used in ’90s music videos, as a trope for artists to almost competitively display the earnestness of their emotional turmoil. “I’m so messed up I’m in an institution in this video,” they seemed to say. In the 2000s, the institution began to reflect a different musical tendency: the display of numbness, of an over-medicated-seeming emotional void.

Mommy states at its outset that a new law about institutionalizing minors determines Diane’s — Mommy’s — fate, and this “fact” therefore looms throughout the film. Let’s just say it makes sense, then, that the film ends not with a song from the ’90s, but with Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die.” For Del Rey, with her patriotic strings, embodies a weird collision of ’90s romanticism and, with her drugged-up drawl and deadened delivery, 2010’s narcosis. Finally, the film places us sonically in the near future — a future where you can easily institutionalize your son, where music echoes the overmedication that comes from knee-jerk mental-health diagnoses — in it, we can hear the past, the emotive ’90s, reverberating through Lana Del Rey’s contemporary daze.

Sometimes handicapped by his musical freneticism, by his reliance on the idea that “people use music to connect emotionally with the story regardless what they’re watching,” Dolan here employs song in a stylistically typical fashion. But now it’s not regardless of what we’re watching — it’s because of it.