Cannes Check 2014: Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mommy’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, from the youngest director in the lineup: Xavier Dolan's “Mommy.”

The director: Xavier Dolan (Canadian, 25 years old). “At last” isn't the typical response when a 25-year-old director makes it into the Cannes Competition, but a number of people — not least Dolan himself — would say that it's about time. Since winning top honors at Directors' Fortnight, aged just 20, with his semi-autobiographical debut feature “I Killed My Mother,” the precocious Québécois child actor turned filmmaker has been on the fast track to the auteur A-list. “Mommy” is his fifth feature, and his fourth to unspool on the Croisette — the odd one out, “Tom at the Farm,” played in Competition at Venice last year. He has produced and written all of them, acted in and edited three, and even serves as his own costume designer. Often identified as one of the leading lights of new queer cinema, Dolan himself resists that classification, though all his films have candidly explored alternative sexuality.

The talent: After 2012's “Laurence Anyways,” this is Dolan's second film in which he remains behind the camera. Taking the Dolan role, in effect, is young Canadian actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon, a Young Artist Award winner who has previously worked with the director of “Laurence” and the short film “College Boy: Indochine.” His two older female co-stars will be even more familiar to Dolan acolytes, having both given blazing lead performances in earlier films: Anne Dorval in “I Killed My Mother” and Suzanne Clement in “Laurence Anyways,” for which she was unusually handed an award by the Un Certain Regard jury. Also featured is Patrick Huard, a Genie-nominated actor best known internationally for “Starbuck” (the comedy recently remade as a Vince Vaughn vehicle). Retained from “Tom at the Farm” is cinematographer Andre Turpin, who also shot Denis Villeneuve's “Incendies”; Dolan himself is again on editing and costume duty. 

The pitch: Upon reading the synopsis for “Mommy,” one's immediate reaction is that it sounds somewhat like a mash-up of narrative and stylistic elements from all Dolan's works to date — down to the casting of key stars from earlier films. Dorval once again plays the overwhelmed single mother of a volatile teenage son (Pilon); unexpected assistance is at hand from a mysterious female neighbor (Clement) who promptly inserts herself into the family. So, the family tensions of “I Killed My Mother” with the psychological identity games of “Tom at the Farm.” The latter film saw him take an unexpectedly disciplined turn into genre territory — the premise suggests  we could be heading down that road again, though with a 134-minute running time, he might be indulging himself a little more this time.

The prestige: As mentioned before, this Dolan's first Competition entry at Cannes, though he's no stranger to the festival, having stormed Directors' Fortnight in 2009, while his next two features both played in Un Certain Regard. It was the second of those UCR selections that proved a touchy one: Dolan, along with many of his admirers, had assumed that a Competition berth was the next logical step after 2010's “Heartbeats,” and made his displeasure known when “Laurence Anyways” — a film very much fashioned as a grandiose leap forward — was denied one. (Critics, while partially admiring, were generally less aggrieved.)

The story goes that the wunderkind was sufficiently piqued to take his next film to Venice instead, where it was duly granted a Competition slot: his first collaboration with another writer, “Tom at the Farm” earned him some strong reviews and picked up the FIPRESCI critics' prize. Did Cannes finally acquiesce simply to get him back on side, or because the selectors felt the film was a clear step forward? We can speculate after seeing it.  

The buzz: Though few would deny his raw talent, Dolan remains a critically divisive figure — some decry his appropriation of Godard and Wong Kar-wai tics as shamelessly derivative, others see him as an exciting new-generation magpie. Dolan's has a robust ego: he instructed Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney to “kiss my narcissistic ass” via Twitter after Rooney's unimpressed review of “Tom at the Farm” last year, and that stroppiness tends to encourage venom from his detractors. All of which is to say that his selection this year was greeted with cheers and eye-rolls in equal measure, with the film itself (about which there's little advance word) hardly taken into consideration. Still, Dolan won over some skeptics (this one included) with the uncharacteristic rigor of his last outing.

The odds: Well, Steven Soderbergh was just 26 when he won the Palme d'Or for “sex, lies and videotape” in 1989 — the same year that Dolan was born, if you can bear to believe it. So age needn't be an issue if the film delivers: the question is whether the jury has the same reservations some critics (and certainly the Cannes selectors) have demonstrated about crowning him too early. (The Venice jury, for what it's worth, gave him nothing for “Tom at the Farm.”) Jigsaw Lounge has Dolan near the back of the pack for the Palme with odds of 33-1, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him humored with a keep-your-hand-in prize like Best Director or Best Screenplay.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up another Canadian director's entry: Atom Egoyan's “The Captive.”