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Xavier Dolan talks about his Oedipal drama, 'Mommy'

Canadian director Xavier Dolan at a press conference for his film 'Mommy' at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Canadian director Xavier Dolan at a press conference for his film 'Mommy' at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

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French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is only 25, but he's already made five feature films and garnered multiple awards at film festivals around the world.

"Mommy," Dolan's latest film, was awarded the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The film tells the story of a turbulent relationship between a single mother and her troubled, often violent son.

When Dolan joined us on The Frame, host John Horn asked him about the inspirations behind "Mommy," making movies for the first time in the U.S., and why his latest film was shot in a ratio that presents the image as a square.

Interview Highlights:

Can you describe the psychological state of the son in "Mommy?"

The son lives with the constant doubt that his mother's love is equivalent to the love he feels for her. And so he seeks an answer to that every second of his life, and every gesture, every action, everything he does is meant to provide him with an answer to that question.

The film opens with a tease of a future law in Canada that allows parents to commit their unruly children to an institution. Where did you come across that idea? Did that trigger the rest of the story, or did that come on after the fact?

At the earliest stage of the inception of "Mommy" was that law. I had read an article in Reader's Digest about a similar law in three or four states, and it was a horrible article. It actually enabled parents who felt they were endangered by their behaviorally disordered children to drop them in state facilities similar to hospitals.

And that was the beginning of this idea for this film?

It was the beginning, because I thought, Wow, it would be such a powerful thing to tell the story. Then it was immediately about telling the story not of the son, but of the mother, and of making that choice. And then the other thing was that I heard a song that I loved, and it made me write a scene that I didn't know would later be incorporated into "Mommy."

What was the song?

The song was "Experience" by Ludovico Einaudi. It plays in the film, when [the mother] has this vision of a very optimistic future [laughs]. It's almost oneiric, because it's so positive, it's so optimistic, it's so bright and tacky and perfect. It's so far from her own life, and when you see that scene I don't think you know if it's the actual future or just a mere fantasy.

But it is something where she's visualizing the future as she dreams it, and when I heard the Einaudi song I was like, Oh, this should be in a movie. I don't know which movie, but with a mother, though I don't know which mother. And she should be dreaming of a future. I used that scene and wrote "Mommy" around that scene, knowing we would be progressing towards that sequence.

What does this film have to say that is different or consistent with your 2009 debut, "I Killed My Mother"?

Both films are diametrically opposed. They're so different to me, actually, and one is not really a response or answer to the other. They're not made against each other, or ... 

Except it's a mother-son story.

Yes, but I could spend literally the rest of my life with one or two or three or four movies a year, if you'd like, telling stories about moms and their sons.

Does your mom like your work? Do you get along well?

She loves the films, yes. [laughs]

You say that with some hesitation.

No, I mean, we're not the most compatible beings. She doesn't like to hear that, obviously, but such is life. She's been a bottomless well of inspiration for me, and she will always be. I mean, I love her with all my heart.

It's really weird how some people will play a very, very important part in your creation and in your work, and then in real life and reality they will occupy a very different space and place. My mom is everywhere with me in every work that I write, but that does not necessarily translate into normal, compatible human dynamics in real life.

This film has a distinct visual look, as it's shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, which some people would also call a square. Does the visual way in which this film is presented strike you when you start photography, or as you're writing it?

Oh, I knew before writing it.


In between movies, I was approached by a band to direct a music video, and I was very much scared. I didn't know that I wanted to do that, but I listened to the song and immediately I saw all of the images. The music video was a perfect vehicle for exploring devices and formalities.

We did it in 1:1, and I thought it would come off as very arty, but I didn't really care because it was a music video, right? But when I saw the dailies and the portraits and the closeups of the characters, I [thought], Those are the most striking portraits I have ever shot.

It's almost a subconscious closeup inside a practical closeup.

Exactly. And I knew that I would want to shoot a movie like that, and "Mommy" seemed completely fit. It seemed like the aspect ratio was completely cut out for that sort of storytelling, where the story is so character-driven that you need to be close to the characters. You don't want to embark on that story, and go inside their houses and their rooms, with an aspect ratio like you're shooting "Batman." It would be completely unseemly. You can't look to something else in the film than the characters' eyes.

What are the most obvious challenges and opportunities in coming from Canada to Hollywood to make a film?

There's nothing else but an independent scene in Canada. We don't have private money, we don't have financiers; we're either financed by the state or it's sweet nothing. So it's very hard to exist as an artist in Canada. And then ... the leap to making a movie in the USA is tough, because you stem from an industry in which look, allure and style are not defined by what you strive for, but rather what you can afford.

I've tried to be creative in making movies look good, but I've reinvested my money in all of these films. I've never had any form of income for producing these films, ever. I've done the costumes myself, I've edited, you know? [laughs] So what's tough now is to make a certain industry understand that the movie I want to produce is actually quite commercial.

"Mommy" opens in theaters on January 23.  Dolan's first American film, "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan," is slated for release in 2016 with a cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon.

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