Out of Proportion: Emotional Exclusion in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Xavier Dolan’s Mommy bursts with energy, violence and emotion. Diane, a financially struggling mother; her mentally unstable son, Steve; and Kayla, their reserved neighbour, struggle in the film’s restricted and narrow 1:1 aspect ratio. There is a sentiment of social oppression that is constant throughout the film and is largely elicited through the scenes where the frame temporarily widens to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film’s narrative and form is tightly bound in the domesticity of suburban Longueuil and the clear social oppression coming from the socially outcasted protagonists. Through the opposition of different themes, such as institutions against nature, focused against unfocused images, stillness and movement, there is a division that is felt and the theme of exclusion take its place. These themes are put into opposition to each other and are used to convey the social oppression felt by Diane, Steve and Kayla. The ratio creates a humble and private format, a relationship between the audience and the film that is more reserved, less is being shown while still having a closeness. The film creates this isolated closed space that is away from the rest of the world, that is removed, except from when the ratio opens up. Looking specifically at the second scene where the frame widens,  the film formally and narratively opposes themes in order to create a restrained feeling and mirror the social oppression felt by the characters. The film, especially the chosen scene, attempts to directly represent the character’s emotions and make the audience feel the same way through these oppositions and formal elements. Using the theoretical framework of Frampton, Sobchack and Eisenstein, the scene will be analyzed through phenomenology.

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In Filmosophy, Frampton introduces the concept of film as a a thinking thing—as a “filmind” having its own concepts and being completely removed from the human characteristics of thinking (9). He views film as an organic whole, a film being that thinks about the characters and subjects presented in the film (7). The film itself and its own vision is creating its own discourse. Frampton also objects to critical approaches that rely on distinctions of elements of a film, choosing to focus instead on film as an inseparable whole. Filmosophy asserts that films can have their own philosophy, and their own means of expression which extend beyond the language of current philosophy. He states that “style is tied to meaning with natural, thoughtful, human terms of intention” (149). He urges theorists to place attention on cinematic, not only on “stories and character motivations” (9). Filmosophy is not just concerned with the analysis of a given film, but rather with the “personal affects of film, how film affects us directly, emotionally” (2). Mommy, through its formal and stylistic oppositions expresses claustrophobia and translates the social exclusion felt by the characters to the viewers. The scene begins with the camera inside the new car, it is empty and voices are heard in the distance. Regardless of the camera angles used, the film thinks and feels by moving the way it does. At the start of the scene, the film is constrained in that tight frame, which in a way removes the ownership that the audience has over the film. There is a form of distance that is established through the 1:1 ratio. There is a salient domesticity and social oppression present in the film’s aesthetic expressed through the way that film thinks, through its constant switch between slow motion and fast camera movements. As the ratio widens, the film decides to see more, and the film viewer is released temporarily from the constraint, which is emotionally liberating.  By keeping the voices to a muffled sound during the dream sequence, the viewer and the film is taken away from the closeness and brought to a distance. There is a shift from the excessive use of close-ups throughout the film to the more removed shots. The camera faces the home at centre, it is viewed from a distance. The music is amplifying, voices become removed, the camera stands in one place, looking at them from far away, creates a nostalgic feeling. Furthermore, the ratio widens when the film displays long shots of streets and highways. The film thinks in specific way and it is clear through how it deals with this specific scene, it creates an emotional distance between the viewer and the characters when they are in the car, and brings them closer than ever before during the dream sequence. The film also decides to look at the characters though windows, to reflect nature off of windows, to oppose nature against human made things. To constrict, to apply muffled and non-narrative voices of previous parts of the film coupled with instrumental music that arouses emotion through its intensity. The viewers are given a break from the constraint provided by the 1:1 ratio as the film thinks more widely and explores the story through a distanced lens. This distance created through the long shots and differently sized frame mirrors the characters’ social exclusion. By distancing the viewers from the characters, the viewers feel excluded and removed from the action.

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Thinking about Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts, similar conclusions can be drawn. She emphasizes corporeal rather than intellectual engagements with film and other media. She demonstrates how experience emerges through senses and how bodies are sense-making, visual subjects. She argues that a collaboration between the senses and thoughts are needed for an solid understanding of film. She speaks of the “capacity of films to physically arouse us to meaning” (57). Just as Sobchack finds herself sensitized by The Piano in terms of touch, Mommy is equally as vivid visually to transfer physical sensations to the viewer. In the scene, the soft blowing of the leaves and the movement of the camera makes the air and the breeze almost touchable. Sobchack claims that film experiences “are [all], in some carnal modality, able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight, suffocation, and the need for air” (65).  For Sobchack, we exist as both here and there, subject and object. The flesh is perceiving itself. Thus, she argues that meaning does not come from from the viewer’s bodies or from cinematic representation, but rather from their clash. As subjects of the cinema, the viewers possess capacities beyond vision. In the scene, the blue skies, yellow leaves, the yellow line cutting the street into two. The typical image of a suburban town. Voices are heard in the background with the sounds of closing doors. The sound and images are not synchronized. The autumn air can be tasted and felt. With Steve, Kayla and Diane’s expressive faces, reflections of branches and trees are seen in the reflection of the window. At the beach, Kayla’s head is seen from the back, there is movement and running, a scream of happiness is heard. Then camera is placed at a distance, we see them running. There is a moment of silence after the excitement. The wind starts blowing, Diane’s hair is seen ruffling in the wind. She expresses her love to him, speaks of the “natural order of things”. Cuts to Kayla inside the home looking out to the autumn street, we see a reflection of the window inside and outside, Diane and Steve and the white car in the distance. Distance is created through the camera and the sound. These vivid images on screen result in a bodily response that feels the fresh cold air of autumn, that feels the sunshine hitting the viewer’s face. These sensuous responses related to nature are opposed to the representations of institutions and buildings. The windows provide a barrier between nature and man. The representation of highways, of houses, of the car is directly opposed to the sensuous responses gotten from the sound of air and slow motion slowing of the leaves and Diane’s hair. In turn, this creates an opposition between the characters and their surroundings, furthering the theme of social exclusion.

Finally, in The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram Eisenstein defines montage as a conflict and cinema as being the combination of shots that are more than the sum of their parts. His montage theory helps understand the dream sequence presented in Dolan’s scene. The culmination of the shots with the instrumental music and the pieces of dialogue that come from earlier parts of the film arouse emotion in the viewer. Eisenstein views cinema as “a factor for exercising emotional influence over the masses” (39). Eisenstein’s theory of montage and film editing is displayed through the mixture of long, medium and close-up shots and alternating between faces and bodies in movement. There are shots of hands playing cards, close-ups of Steve and his graduating gown, medium shots from unrecognizable faces dancing at the wedding, shots of Steve holding an acceptance letter in hand. The montage advances rapidly from one shot to the next, the camera is in constant movement, the scene moves from slow motion to more rapid movements, from very focused close-ups to very blurry figures.

The constant movement of the angles and composition of the frame create a series of referable image and becomes in itself a world that the viewer, relating to its own experience. Furthermore, according to Eisenstein’s viewpoint, there should be a conflict in every single frame. This emphasizes Eisenstein’s theory that cinema combines “shots that are depictive, single in meaning, neutral in content—into intellectual contexts and series” (30). Dolan utilizes montage as a constant movement of different images, rolling one shot after another that when sequences together construct an emotion and space in the viewer’s mind. Close-ups of human interactions, faces, milestones are shown. The mommy necklace shines from the light of the sun as an extreme close-up of a baby face is shown which then cut to aura-like colours and forms. Images begins to rotate, blurry figures and unrecognizable faces.  The camera during the sequence moves fast from one image to another, the movements from one shot to the next are fast, there is constant zooming in, zooming out, focusing and un-focusing. Voices of previous scenes are heard in the muffled background, Steve’s tantrums, Kayla’s questions. Every action is in a slow motion but rapid pace. Eisenstein’s montage theory used by Dolan arouses emotions of sadness and longing from the viewers. They are shown what will not happen, they are shown a happy ending that cannot happen. Although it is happening on screen, the concentration of images and the intensity of the music creates a feeling of melancholy and places the viewer in Diane’s position as a mother who cannot help her son. By displaying such intense emotions through the montage, the audience is placed in the socially oppressed position that Diane, Steve and Kayla are in.

Dolan, in his film Mommy, attempts to directly represent the character’s emotions and make the audience feel the same way by opposing certain thematic elements and through his filming methods. Using Frampton’s film thinking, Sobchack’s flesh analysis and Eisenstein’s montage theory that generates emotions from the viewers, Mommy becomes a film that provokes emotions of social exclusion and oppression in the film-viewer.

Works Cited

1. Frampton, Daniel. Filmosophy. London: Wallflower, 2006. Print.

2. Sobchack, Vivian Carol. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: U of California, 2004. Print.

3. Eisenstein, Sergei, and Jay Leyda. Film Form; Essays in Film Theory. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Print.

4. Mommy. Dir. Xavier Dolan. Perf. Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément. Les Films Séville, 2014. DVD.

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