The Family: the father – a man, the mother – a woman, the child – a boy or a girl. And there it is. The norm, the normal family, the foundation of society, little bricks shaping the grand construction. The figure of the father, the authority. We know, without reading psychoanalysis, without knowing who Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan were, without reading, before we could even read, we knew that the father is the head of the family, the voice of reason, of authority. If we needed permission to do something we went to our father, if we got hurt we went to our mother to groom our wounds with her magical hands. Even though in my family I ran to my mother in both cases and mostly just laughed and played along with my father, I still knew that the father is, following an unwritten holy rule, the authority, not for me in particular, as this did not apply to my own situation, but in general.
If the father is the reason, which he should be in a “normal family”, then the mother has to be the heart. Father’s arms are strong and protective, mother’s arms are warm, caring, but weaker. Following this structure of an ideal family, one can see, if one can discern beyond the shiny smiles from the American advertisements over a new house, that the family members are subjected to the father’s convictions, and thus oppressed and repressed. The child who is forced to grow up following the father’s principles, fulfilling his demands and satisfying his desires in return to the breeding he has provided. But also the mother, who is bound to resign to her role as a wife and child carer.
This introduction is of use when bringing into discussion “Mommy”, Xavier Dolan’s film from 2014 in relation to Robin Wood’s theory on the figure of The Other in films. Wood applies his theory on the American horror film, identifying 8 forms in which The Other is presented in cinema: 1.Quite simply, other people. And taking into consideration than the normative image of normality is a middle class heterosexual white male, the other forms are not hard to guess. The most obvious other is the woman, seen by Jacques Lacan as the image of castration through the lack of phallus , which then leads Laura Mulvey (1975) to appropriate the concept of the gaze discussing it in the relation with the Hollywoodian films of the ’60s.
Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (Mulvey 1975). Following Mulvey, the woman is not only the other for the male, but by being so is also the object of desire, tieing the gaze to the subject’s object of desire. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (Mulvey 1975). But Mulvey was contradicted by McGowan (2007) who stated that: the gaze compels our look because it appears to offer access to the unseen, to the reverse side of the visible; it promises the secret of the Other, but the secret exists only insofar as it remains hidden – the subject cannot uncover the secret of the gaze, and yet it marks the point at which the visual field takes the subject’s desire into account. The other is this terms is the unseen, is the disruptive element which makes the Symbolical order to tremble from its grounds, and this other seen in a film is exactly what makes the film to gaze back at its viewers, by making them feel guilty and ashamed for seeing something which is not supposed to be seen but is nevertheless what incites their curiosity. The other “others” numbered by Wood (2003) are: 3. the proletariat; 4. Other cultures; 5. Ethnic group within the culture; 6. Alternative ideologies or political systems; 7. Deviations from ideological sexual norms—notably bisexuality and homosexuality; 8. Children
The otherness is caused by escaping the surplus repression which should: makes us (if it works) into monogamous, heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists. If it works; if it doesn’t, the result is either a neurotic or a revolutionary (or both)… (Wood 1979)
“Mommy” is not a horror film, not even close. There are no monsters, only humans; real, convincing, deeply damaged humans, in an endless struggle with life and with the result following their own decision. The characters are not villains, they are no supernatural beings, no individuals with a shady past or secrets deeper than anyone else’s secrets, and yet the film is constructed around “the others”.
I started from Antoine Olivier Pilon’s character, Steve Després, considering him as the representant of the other in his status as a son, therefore a child, even though his age makes him fall in the teenager’s category. After further consideration, I find myself in the situation of stating that “Mommy” is a film on the others. Starting from the controversial figure of Xavier Dolan, the young, homosexual, Canadian director who refuses to collect the Queer Palm at Cannes in 2012 for his film Laurence Anyways, even the title of the film, “Mommy”, sketches the image of a family, but this family is automatically labeled as abnormal, as the mother is not the head of the family. Next is the relationship between the mother and her son. A dysfunctional, strange relationship, between a mature woman, with money and attitude problems and a teenager diagnosed with a psychological condition, whom she previously hospitalized into an institution. Female sexuality repression or the escape of it is suggested by Die’s look an attitude and by the means, she uses to convince a lawyer to help her with her son’s case. In Mulvey’s terms, the character would probably be an object of desire, and when she is no longer passive, she is no longer desirable.
The mother and son relationship is further reshaped to permit the entrance of a third character. Another woman, Kyla, another mother, who comes from a “normal family” where the father is the figure of authority, but whose son died and is left with speaking difficulties as a result of the trauma. Her role in her own family is suffocating, but she finds an escape in the dysfunctional relationship between Diane “Die” Després and her son.
Steve, a father orphan, a psychologically disturbed teenager, with anger issues and violent outbursts, with homosexual tendencies, suicide attempts and a seemingly Oedipus’ Complex, who is unable to show his affection without “crossing” the line, is most definitely every parent’s nightmare. And every parent is left wondering who is at fault. Is it Die for not raising her son right? Is it society for not giving Steve any chance? Is it a cumulus of unfortunate events which befell on this family? Is it the lack of paternal figure?
Furthermore, the characters belong to the working class. Even a bit lower as Diane gets fired and is unemployed until she finds a new job as a housemaid in a wealthy and luxurious mansion.
The film has, or at least had on me an enormous emotional impact because it makes “the others” so relatable, it shows that actually there is no other, there are only humans. The difficult role which Die has to shoulder as a single mother, the tragic decision she has to make in regards to her son’s health, and admitting that her love as a mother is not enough – opposed to Kyla’s background story as a grieving mother over the death of her son, having to deal with a crippled family in which the father is trying to hold everything together, and the glimpses of absolute and innocent happiness the 3 characters live together are the elements which make these characters more human than a “normal” individual and enhance the emotional effect.
The ideal ending imagined by Die is in antithesis with the real denouement; the utopic life of the “normal” as opposed to the unfortunate destiny of the other. When discussing the film in these terms, what else could the ending be, but a metaphor of oppression. Steve being submitted in a “lunatic asylum” is the way society deals with otherness, it casts them away, it hides them, it does not accept them.
Steve is a neurotic and a revolutionary at the same time, this being proved by his attempt of breaking free with an unspoken, but easy to discern result.
McGowan, T (2007) Real Gaze [online] SUNY Press. Ithaca, US, 1-20. available from: <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/coventry/reader.action?docID=10575994> [19 November 2016]
Mulvey, L. (1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP. pp. 833-844.
Wood, R. (1979) “An Introduction to the American Horror Film: I. Repression, the Other, the Monster,” American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals.
Wood, R. (1979) “The American nightmare Horror in the 70s”