Cannes 2014: Raw nerves on docket with 'Mommy'

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CANNES, France —

Many well-regarded films competing for the 67th Cannes Film Festival awards, to be announced Saturday, are concerned primarily with matters of the heart, obliquely drawn.

"Mommy" is not one of them. It is a mother/son story of immense, gut-centric emotional impact, and the way it's being touted here at the festival, Xavier Dolan's startling fifth feature appears likely to be rewarded Saturday by jury president Jane Campion in one or more of the major categories.

After my requisite breakfast of apple tart and 11 espressos, I caught up with it Thursday, in a rapturously received screening at the largest of the festival venues, the Grand Lumiere, where Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language" played the day before. Dolan, a Quebecois filmmaker who's all of 25, started his career with "I Killed My Mother." By now Dolan has learned to complicate things, in a good way, creating a story where violent, desperate impulses alternate with tender ones, going and coming in at least two directions.

Dolan sets his story a year in the future. Fifteen-year-old Steve, a dangerous live wire as played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon, is discharged from a medical facility into the dubious care of his widowed mother, Diane. Anne Dorval plays her, with magnificent, slightly scary brio, and I suspect the Palme for best actress either goes to her Saturday, or to Marion Cotillard for her work in the Dardennes brothers film "Two Days, One Night." And that's enough awards speculation for one column.

Steve's specific medical challenges include ADHD, attachment disorder, frightening impulse control problems and a host of demons "Mommy," to its detriment, pins neatly on the loss of his father. The mother/son relationship between boozy, manic, marginally employed Diane and her son is all nerve endings, exposed. The love between these two is strong but unsafe; they may as well be dancing on balsa wood.

There's a third major character in "Mommy," Kyla, played by the superb Suzanne Clement, the neighbor who lives across the street with her husband and daughter. A breakdown has afflicted Kyla with a stammer that comes and goes depending on the stressors in her life. Paradoxically the more time she spends with Diane and Steve — and they all become very close — the more relaxed she grows. Life is an unpredictable party for these three. But then Steve's past recklessness catches up with them all. He started a fire in his middle school, resulting in one boy's burn injuries. Initially played for a sick joke, this event becomes the first domino leaving Diane in a gripping no-win situation. "Loving people doesn't save them," Diane says early on, and the line casts a pall.

Dolan, who wrote and directed, inevitably finds Steve a more sympathetic character than some in the audience will. there are times in "Mommy" when the dramatic machinery (in a humiliating karaoke sequence, for example, designed to get Steve wholly on our side) grinds its gears. But there's true, headlong energy in the execution of this story, and the performances are excellent. From the women, particularly: Pilon and Clement create such a strong bond on screen, one senses their work, and "Mommy," will be revisited for years to come.

For all but a few minutes of its running time "Mommy" is shot and framed for a squished, narrow aspect ratio. Then, as the characters' outlooks expand along with their hearts, the size of the image expands as well, before contracting again under dire emotional circumstances. It's a gimmick but an effective one. The film is better than its gimmick. Throughout "Mommy" the intensity of the feelings is such that a laugh catches in your throat, only to turn into a gasp.

'Jimmy's Hall'

There's a scene in the new Ken Loach film "Jimmy's Hall" in which residents of 1932-era County Leitrim, Ireland, sit around a circle in a community hall run by Communist activist and local hero Jimmy Gralton. They discuss a poem by Yeats, one of endless, hopeless love. "Does all that longing break your heart," one man wonders, "or fill you up with hope?"

It's a sharply worded line full of feeling and nuance. One wishes there were more of them in Loach's latest Cannes competition title, a prettily romanticized version of Gralton, played by Barry Ward. In 1933 the Irish citizen was deported on political grounds without a trial. Loach's film pits Gralton's family and friends against the fearsome dictates of the church and state, who don't want the troublemaker in their midst. The fate of the dance hall of the title hangs in the balance.

Loach won the Palme in 2006 for "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," which "Jimmy Hall" echoes in many ways. It's moderately diverting, but I do wish Gralton came to life more fully as a dimensional character, politically charged. Also I wish the youthful denizens of the dance hall, crazy for the hot Harlem records Gralton has brought back from America, weren't trotted out periodically like the chorus of "Me and My Girl," reciting song cues for songs that never arrive.

Twitter @phillipstribune

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