A definitive rundown of the award-winning filmmaker’s most basic musical choices, from Céline Dion to House of Pain
What is most confrontational about 25-year-old Xavier Dolan’s exceptionally shouty drama Mommy isn’t the claustrophobic 1:1 aspect-ratio or casually racist protagonist, but a sincere appreciation for Céline Dion. The Canadian director’s fifth (and arguably best) film centres its narrow frame on the widescreen tantrums of a pyromaniac teen, his fiery mother, and their stuttering neighbour. Yet it’s the unapologetically unfashionable middle-of-the-road 90s tunes – from Counting Crows to Eiffel 65 – that compile an unabashedly personal mixtape of emotions.
With complete disregard for conventional taste, Dolan has always recognised the power of pop music in films: as a time-travel tool, as a diary confession, as a grasp for freedom, and as a sentimental language that doesn’t require subtitles. To celebrate his shameless approach to film music, here’s a definitive rundown of all our personal favourites.
Banished to boarding school, Hubert (Dolan) sneaks out with another curly-haired boy (Niels Schneider) for an ecstasy-fuelled make-out session on the dance floor. In Hubert’s mind, the packed club leaps in slow motion to a downbeat, shoegaze-y Crystal Castles song that, in reality, would never be heard at a rave night. The half-strummed chords and ethereal female vocals are Hubert’s internal release: after a tumultuous adolescence spent hiding boyfriends from his not-actually-dead mother, he can safely fall into the arms of a handsome soul mate who’ll accept him for who he is. Or is it just the pills?
Dolan embraced ‘Difficult Second Album Syndrome’ with louder songs, brighter colours, and the confidence of someone who’ll plug his iPod Shuffle into the speakers of someone else’s house party. That appears to be the case when Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), decorated in elegant 60s outfits, enter the living room – again, in slow motion – like Wong Kar-Wai characters on a mission. Except that mission is to look dignified, which is impossible when the playlist incongruously leaps from a whispery Sonny & Cher cover to a novelty rap song. Pack it up, pack it in?
Not the Knife song you were expecting? “Pass This On” isn’t just lyrically appropriate in this film (“I’m in love with your brother – what’s his name?”) but its staccato rhythm dramatically sets up strobe lighting trickery for Francis and Marie’s unrequited nightmare. The jealous duo gawp hopelessly as their crush, Nicolas (Schneider), dances with his blue-wigged mother; under violently flashing lights, they feel her heels puncturing upon any romantic hopes. It’s relevant for anyone who’s been sober on a night out, patiently sat by the side, and relating too closely with the stereo system.
When Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), born a biological man, goes public about their desire to become a woman, they turn up to work in a trouser suit, eyeliner, and heels short enough for a beginner. They’re also a teacher, which leads to a foreboding silence when stepping into a classroom. It’s a long silence, as if the audio is malfunctioning. What arrives instead of a student backlash is Headman’s drum machine, followed by a celebratory strut down the corridor – subverting the teen movie cliche – as Laurence catwalks past lockers, turning the heads of jocks, goths, and extras delighted to be in a Xavier Dolan film.
Although the self-indulgent 148-minute running time could be more manageable without the musical interludes, that would kill the essence of a film Dolan freely admits was formed in his mind upon hearing “A New Error”. He saves Moderat’s optimistic synth lines, which work in tandem, for a momentous montage when Laurence reunites with Frédérique (Suzanne Clément). The couple stroll side by side, like the song’s two duelling riffs, while soft garments fall from the sky in what must be the comfiest electro-pop apocalypse imaginable.
You’d think living on a farm would be an opportunity to dial the radio up to 11 without disturbing the neighbours, but Tom at the Farm is, for Dolan, remarkably devoid of diegetic music. A rare instance is at Guillaume’s funeral service when close friend Tom (Dolan) asks the priest to play “Plurs dans la pluie” on a CD player. Except Tom was the deceased’s boyfriend, unbeknownst to anyone else, and conjures up his own personal flashback: drunkenly slurring the sappy ballad with Guillaume in a karaoke bar, creating a memory to outlast death. To everyone else, it’s just a reminder CD players exist.
During a cat-and-mouse struggle with Guillaume’s suspicious brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Carrdinal), Tom is blackmailed – if cats do blackmail mice – into snorting coke and stepping in as a tango partner. There’s a clear sexual subtext in the physical entanglement of their bodies, rhythmically sliding back and forth, while Francis exploits the loud dance track (used by Richard Gere and J-Lo in Shall We Dance?) to drown out whispered confessions: he’s fed up of watching corn grow and milking cows. When the mother intrudes on the action, eerie embarrassment echoes across the barn. Mum, I’m only dancing...
Dolan is a director/writer/blender who can squeeze every kilojoule out of a few verses and choruses. His music video for Indochine is a precursor to Mommy in its unison of Antoin Pilon, an emphatic soundtrack, and an almost 1:1 aspect ratio (it isn’t quite – I measured the screen with a ruler). The upbeat melody, juxtaposed with minor chords, mirrors the school bullies’ twisted pleasure from urinating on Pilon, before he’s tied to a stake in front of a firing squad. The persistent keyboards replace the howls emanating from Pilon who, all things considered, is having a terrible day.
The 1:1 aspect ratio business sets up the glorious moment when Dolan tricks you into hearing – and somehow embracing – “Wonderwall” in its entirety. Steve (Pilon) spreads his arms, as if trying to build his own wonderwall, and stretches the boxed frame to cathartic widescreen. It’s a reminder of Noel Gallagher’s defence that fans can develop a personal connection to even the most nonsensical lyrics. You’re not really hearing Oasis, but how much Steve adores Oasis, especially when skateboarding down the road with his eyes closed. Which is totally dangerous, so don’t do it.
Mixing red wine with family squabbles inevitably leads to singing along to Céline Dion in the kitchen. After an afternoon of blunt words and sharp objects, Steve offers his mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), a peace offering by spinning a CD-R marked “DIE + STEVE MIX 4EVER”. The tracks, compiled years ago by the household’s absent father, score a non-verbal therapy session whereby the pair proudly groove to “our national treasure”. So too does their dinner guest, Kyla (Clément), because the song’s appeal is that everyone knows it. After all, the family that dances awkwardly in the kitchen together, stays together.