Life through the Lens

Paper by Catalina Laughrin.

The struggles in which everyday people with extraordinary lives face is something that film director Xavier Dolan encapsulates immensely throughout his films. Touching upon various genuine topics such as the death of a loved one in “It’s Only the End of the World” and mother to son relationships in “I Killed My Mother,” Dolan is renowned for his films in which elements of reality are meant to be vocalized and examined. Canadian-born, Xavier Dolan not only comments on controversial or personal subjects as seen numerously throughout his film, but also allows the audience to create their own judgements on his take on modern issues. Most famously known for his 2014 film “Mommy,” Dolan exceeds the expectations for a film that is not only so unique, but is also so important in the ways that it discusses family ties. After winning the 2014 Cannes Jury Prize award for the film, Mommy “bursts through the screen with the rough vitality of real people, in an explosion of suffocating power and surprising warmth” (Corliss, Par. 10). In the film “Mommy” by Xavier Dolan, the use of cinematography by means of editing and utilizing a select style of film portrays the developmental themes of the plot. Portrayed specifically throughout the film, Diane’s visions of her life with her son is not only widely expressed throughout the scene from 1:51:03 to 1:56:36, but also captures the theme of family; an important theme that is developed throughout the overall film. It is this scene that provides the turning point in what drives Diane’s decisions to carry through with committing Steve to the psychiatric institution. Filmed in Longueuil Quebec, Mommy discusses the hardships single parents face when raising a child. This coming-of-age film is not only a great visual to the insight of a family’s life, but also comments on the heavier, struggles of everyday family life.

Much on what a film says about itself is projected through the way that the film is made up. In Mommy, this film relies heavily on the amount of editing and mise-en-scene found throughout the film. With the aid of camera techniques and tricks found within Dolan’s movie, the audience becomes well aware of the amount of editing that is tied into the one apparent scene where Diane is having a dream sequence. An example of this is the large amount of tight shots, and the heavy amounts of fading and up-close, distinct camera angles. Dolan’s use of editing allows the film to establish a variety of moods while also keeping it lively by adding a touch of realism found within the film. While this almost “dream sequence” takes place inside Diane’s mind, it is evident based off of her reactions and ties to the way that the editing is used, that Diane is seeing what her life would be like, or how she would have liked if Steve stayed growing up with her. All throughout the wedding scene, and the entire dream sequence in general, Diane’s aspirations are apparent. Everything that Diane envisions most in her life are occasionally put into focus; allowing the audience to get a clear understanding that this vision is what puts things in perspective for her, and perhaps for the audience themselves. This, along with the way that the camera utilizes quick sharp and tight cuts provide a sense of rushed senses, which in return, establishes the pace of the sequence and ultimately forces the audiences to feel a certain way. These mixed emotions that Diane is expressing through the movie and throughout the few scenes that I have selected are critical to the rest of the film and her views on what family means to her. Through this sequence, it is clear that Diane wishes not only the best for her son, but also views her life to be a big part of his. This, along with her friendship with her newly made friend Kyla are projected heavily throughout the sequence. Dolan captures this remarkably by means of having most of the duration of the scene comprises of close-up edits. These edits provide a sense of realism throughout the film in the way you, the audience member, view this section of the film as if you were watching it through the eyes of the character; or perhaps eavesdropping on Diane’s dreams. This provides a very intimate connection from the audience to the film, which I think is highly critical to the way that Dolan attempts to express how Diane’s dreams are genuine and how to her, make up are such a large part of her current life.

Apart from the significant editing within Mommy, Dolan’s use of incorporating music and the “dream sequence” in it itself, provides a major character analysis of Diane. Throughout this vision of what Diane wishes to have in her life, the music seems to go hand in hand with the way her emotions are running. Throughout most the sequence, the music that Dolan includes ranges from a medium pace, to a highly intense pace as the sequence gets longer and more intense. This to me emphasizes Diane’s state of being and mind. In the beginning of the dream sequence in which Diane watches Steve grows up through having a baby, through the duration of the wedding, most of the music in it is entirely at once pace. The pace shifts dramatically however as the sequence reaches the wedding scenes. This is important to note because the scene is reaching the end of the dream sequence. As the level of intensity throughout the music changes to a sudden shift, Diane’s “life” at this moment in time is a time where she must recognize that her son is actually leaving her. It is the wedding scene that provides a lot of insight into what Diane’s character. Although Diane wants the best for her child, and is delighted to see him grow up into the man that he’s become, handing him over to his newly-wed wife seems to strike her. This sudden realization shifts the remainder of the dream sequence and the music drops off to almost nothing at all, before returning slower and more somber. Here Diane is thrown back into reality. She is realizing now that while this dream to have Steve to herself and to have the gratification that she could independently raise him on her own, is just not something that she can contend too. This shift in music in return, shifts the atmosphere of the scene and what she wants in her life, blurs away.

Similarly to the way that Dolan incorporates music to the sequence, the use of color and the way that it ties in carefully with the mise-en-scene of the film is highly noteworthy to Diane and the way that she displays her aspirations. Throughout the entire dream sequence, the film is shown in light warm, almost sepia tones. This is important to discuss because Dolan carefully includes this color palette to describe Diane’s life. Here, in what she envisions her life to be like, Diane is content. Throughout the duration of the sequence, almost every scene featuring Diane includes her emotions ranging from being pleased to being absolutely ecstatic by the turns of events following her and Steve’s’ lives. This is critical to compare to the scenes where Diane is back to reality, sitting at the stoplight on her way to take Steve to the psychiatric institution. The stark and bleak colors of gray and blue bring forward a more somber tone, indicating that Diane is no longer dreaming. Here, her life is now where she was when she first left off and she no longer believes that her dreams could ever come true. This harsh awakening is not only presented to the characters, as Steve questions if something is wrong, but also to the audience. By having a wide range of mise-en-scene to work with, Dolan carefully selects certain aspects that ultimately aid in the way that Diane carries herself and to the overall film in general. In the dream sequence, Diane is glowing, her hair is up and she is delighted by everything around her. Her friend is near, her relationship with Steve is healthy, and she is not afraid to show just how joyful she is to be. Once out of the sequence however, Diane’s cheerful behavior goes unnoticed as she is driving Steve off to his final destination. In the scenes following the sequence, Diane’s hair is down, untouched and disregarded. Her emotions are shielded, and she covers her eyes with thick sunglasses. This stark comparison is just one of the many little details that Dolan includes throughout the entire film. By adjusting the way that the film is visually exhibited through help of the mise-en-scene, Dolan brings to life a very real and intimate way of describing a character’s dreams or thoughts without using words. Here Dolan carefully but creatively shows Diane’s state of being and perhaps state of mind, simply through the use of costumes and colors.

Not only does Dolan creatively use the mise-en-scene of the film to display how Diane is feeling, but his inclusion of having the film set to a 1:1 ratio is also highly notable. By having a 1:1 aspect ratio, it“[gives] the film a tighter, smaller square framing rather than a wider, envelope-like format viewers are accustomed to seeing” (Dornbush, Par. 1). Throughout the duration of the film, up until Diane’s dream sequence, the film is set at a boxed 1:1 ratio. This gives off the impression much similar to a home video; very personal and very real. The use of this 1:1 ratio continues to “[show] [the characters’] restricted horizons and reflects the drama’s compressed emotional power” that is so crucial to the film (Bradshaw, Par. 5). This is very obvious as the ratio is presented throughout the entire film, apart from Diane’s dream. In her visions of growing older and having a nice life with Steve, the aspect ratio widens to a 1:85 aspect ratio as if taking on an opposite effect of how a typical movie is presented. This leads to the audience being able to have a wider sense of emotions. As the screen fills with this five or eight minute sequence of Diane wishing that she could contribute more to her son’s life, the sequence in itself feels like a dream. It is only till the end of the sequence where Diane recognizes that what she envisions could never be real, does the ratio slowly close in back to its 1:1 format. This gives off the impression of the straining and boxed-in confined life that is reality. Almost as if oppressing her dreams, this act of cropping the film is significant to the way that Diane herself has become oppressed by society and the ways that people view children with mental disabilities. This ratio is symbolic in that it demonstrates how Diane’s mental state is presented. Instead of living life in a wide-screen, pleasurable way, she and the rest of the characters, are confined to being restricted by the ways in which society has fashioned them to become.

Asides from the various and significant amounts of editing and cropping that Dolan uses in Mommy to give off a realistic analysis of the everyday lives of his characters, the use of motifs are highly pronounced throughout the film and aid in the way that emotions can be projected. Within the film, the motif of rain is extremely noticeable by how it is incorporated into the mood of the entire scene. The use of rain, as first noticed in the beginning of the sequence where Steve is smiling with joy, acceptance letter in the air, is largely prominent to the way that he is feeling. As the rain can be seen as a happy or sad moment in the characters lives, but also is a critical part to the mise-en-scene, it is through use of the rain that the audience can get a wider understanding of what is means to Steve while ultimately establishing the ambiance of the scene. Another significant point to Dolan’s use of rain is the fact that the occurrence of rain is only prominent to the film when there are certain moments that tie the characters’ recognition of reality. For Steve, it is when he gets his acceptance letter, and when he notices that Diana has agreed to send him off to the psychiatric hospital. In these brief moments, Dolan’s touches of rain; such as the rain that Diane experiences directly after her “dream sequence” almost illustrate the ideas that the rain symbolizes a new coming-of-age for the characters and the family in itself. With each incident with the rain, each family member is tied to a somber recognition that things are changing and what little family connections they once had are being put on a line.

Through Xavier Dolan’s accredited film, Mommy vivaciously stands out as a film that interconnects the lives of two individuals; mother and son, and the ways that the idea of family is presented. It is through his use of various cinematography features such as the way that the film aspect is designed, the mise-en-scene, the symbolism found throughout the scenes, and the editing that ultimately allow Dolan’s creative and modern film to stand out. As one critic describes it, “Mommy has art-house appeal, but there’s also something doggedly commercial about Dolan’s work—an affection for big emotional fireworks” (Lansky, par. 9). Within these carefully thought-out scenes of Diane envisioning her life with her son, Steve, the audience is able to connect not only with the characters and the way that their family lives are interconnected, but through their actions and emotions. These scenes, ranging from 1:51:03 to 1:56:36 are crucial to the way that the film is constructed, and leaves space for the audience to decide what is considered moral or immoral, based on the characters’ actions. It is clear that Diane has a ton of mixed feelings for the way that her country is governed and how she is to fare with being a single mom of a child with a mental disability. This scene is highly critical to the way that Diane wishes to have the best life with her son, however is limited by reality and the oppression of her country. It is through Dolan’s careful and detailed scenes that his films such as Mommy, which provide a clear and evident tie to themes that are related to realistic ones, are found in everyday life.

Works Cited

Bradshaw, Peter. “Mommy Review – Outrageous and Brilliant, a Daytime Soap from Hell.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2016
Corliss, Mary. “Review: Xavier Dolan’S Mommy: The Fireworks Of Family Love And Pain.” Time.Com (2015): N.PAG. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Dornbush, Jonathon. “‘Mommy’ Director Xavier Dolan Asks Netflix to Fix Aspect Ratio on His Film.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly Inc., Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.
Lansky, Sam. “Drama King.” Time 185.3 (2015): 56-57. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2016.


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