Xavier Dolan is the hipster wunderkind of Cannes.
Young, talented, photogenic, and not afraid of a little confrontation, the French-Canadian filmmaker has already made five films at an age when most folks are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. His work’s played in the Cannes sidebar before, but his latest, Mommy, is part of this year’s main competition, placing the 25-year-old director up against some masters. But Dolan’s all grown up, and Mommy is an audacious, stylish, impressive family drama that holds up perfectly well against the films it’s been placed with.
Yes, it has its overblown moments that verge on camp, and it invents some frankly bullshit stakes that undercut the emotional impact of the end. Mommy, which Dolan also wrote, opens with titles about how it’s set in a fictional Canada in which a controversial law has been passed allowing parents to have their children committed if they are unable to care for them.
That fact lingers over the story like Chekov’s improbable gun, providing the main artificial note in a movie that’s outsized but otherwise generous with its characters, which include Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval), a fortysomething widow who dresses more like a teenager while struggling to raise her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), and their neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a former high school teacher coping with the recent onset of a socially paralyzing stutter. When that invented law does come into play, it feels like a sizable betrayal of the previous presentation of Die. But that’s an overall minor quibble. If Dolan hasn’t made a great movie yet, he’s made a very good one here that assures something masterful’s coming soon.
Steve’s got his own issues — he’s been diagnosed with ADHD, but also has a scary temper, poor impulse control, and trouble modulating his behavior. Still, he’s funny, profane, and sweet. When the film begins, he’s been evicted from a juvenile detention center after setting fire to the cafeteria. Die, who’s barely holding her own life together, is understandably worried about how they’re going to manage.
Luckily for the pair, they’re able to befriend their next-door neighbor Kyla, who’s good for the Despréses, and they bring some brightness into her life. But the outcast-family-of-choice stability they find isn’t destined to last. The exuberant, bawdy unpredictability of both Die and Steve cuts through a lot of the potential sentimentality of their relationship with the charmed Kyla (“Her ass smell like roses — it’s written in the stars,” Steve exclaims after first meeting her). Die and Steve (and the movie) need an audience for their two-person act, which can get unbearably blustery and loud when performed in a vacuum.
Dolan, whose debut film was a semi-autobiographical story about a mother and son entitled I Killed My Mother, has the firmest grasp of Steve, played by the magnetic Pilon. The women are shaped more by being in his orbit, especially Kyla, who seems to have little interest in her colorless home life with her husband and child. The film’s finest moments are those of lavish abandon, of the trio dancing to Celine Dion or a joyous Steve reaching toward the camera in the middle of a montage to open up the otherwise 1:1 aspect ratio. (In idiosyncratic fashion, Mommy is shot in a square like a two-hour Instagram video.) Still, the film, which hasn’t been picked up for a U.S. distributor yet, is a sign of Dolan’s gifts and his growth as a filmmaker.
On the other side of the venerability scale in the Cannes competition is the 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, the influential giant of the French New Wave who’s still a boundary-pushing firebrand in his seventh decade of filmmaking. His new movie Goodbye to Language is in 3D, and regardless of your patience for non-narratives, what he does with the technology is striking if sometimes actually painful. (Warning: Your eyes will throb.) His best trick is to split the stereovision involved in 3D so that a character is followed in a shot in one eye while in the other, the camera stays on whoever’s left behind. It’s an effect that’s hard to explain, but it’s so disturbing as it happens and when the images snap back together.
Goodbye to Language is more playful than much of Godard’s recent work, but it’s still the kind of thing that those on its wavelength will revere as a masterpiece while others will find it a giant, incomprehensible roundup of every stereotype of old-school French art film, with some new ones thrown in. There’s a dog, there’s a naked couple, there are cigarettes and flowers, and the voiceover intones phrases about Russia, World War II, Google, philosophy, and pooping. “I hate characters,” one character says. The credits cite Beethoven and Derrida. The soundscape includes fake ringtones, as if people in the theater had forgotten to turn their cell phones off.
It was a pretty much impenetrable watch, but there is something to be said for Godard reaching for the goal of the title, to leave old cinematic language behind and to aim for something new. And maybe that’s enough to lure non-Godardophiles into seeing Goodbye to Language, which doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet, but which will definitely end up playing art houses eventually. Film is constantly changing, but there are few people who’ve been as consistently interested in rewriting its grammar as Godard, and that’s over a long and legendary career.
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