Why 'Mommy' and 'Leviathan' Were Worthy Winners at Cannes

One is a high-pitched family drama, the other a satire on modern-day Russia. Both excited Haaretz's film critic.

“Powerful” is a word that many viewers will probably use to describe “Mommy,” the fifth feature from 25-year-old French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan. Watching “Mommy” is indeed an intense experience. This was Dolan’s first time competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and although his film did not claim the top award – the prize went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” – it did tie for the Jury Prize with “Goodbye to Language,” Jean-Luc Godard’s first 3-D film.

Like Dolan’s 2009 debut “I Killed My Mother,” but from a different emotional angle, “Mommy” deals with a mother-son relationship. (In interviews, Dolan has described his mother as the most significant person in his life and confirmed that motherhood is a constant theme of his work). Diane (Anne Dorval, who, like other members of the cast, has appeared in Dolan’s films before, and whose performance here is a tour de force) is a widow who moves to a small town with her teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve suffers from an extreme hyperactivity disorder and is prone to outbursts of violence and vandalism. Diane is not a calm person, either. She is extroverted, aggressive, even vulgar, but somewhere inside her there is a wellspring of
maternal tenderness and emotion.

It’s not easy to live with Steve, who is aware of his condition, agonizes over it, but is unable to control it. Dolan sets the movie in 2015, when Canada has supposedly passed a law that allows parents to lock up problematic children without a trial; Diane, however, refuses to resort to this cruel solution.

Into their secluded life comes Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a neighbor with a young daughter of her own, with whom she does not seem to have a very close bond. Kyla is a former teacher who has suffered an emotional breakdown that makes it hard for her to speak. An introverted woman who fulfills her domestic duties with joyless obedience, Kyla is drawn to Diane and Steve’s unusual, energetic and even dangerous relationship. What happens between these three people accounts for much of the movie.

Dolan directed “Mommy” in an eccentric, mannerism-heavy style, but it works, and the result is powerfully engaging. There is a lot of shouting, but that is exactly what makes its quieter moments so effective. The hysteria that pervades “Mommy” is shot through with emotion that makes it a formidable experience.

No less impressive, albeit in a different way, is “Leviathan,” the fourth feature of gifted Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Return,” “The Banishment,” “Elena”). The movie, which won the festival’s screenplay prize, is a sharply satirical attack on the corrupt establishment ruling modern-day Russia, which Zvyagintsev captures in icy yet exquisite landscapes of gray and blue.
 
Set in a northern Russian town where all that remains of the former fishing industry is the skeletons of boats and whales, the story focuses on Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov), a local man who lives in the house where he was born, which stands on the land his family owns. He lives there with his second wife and a son from a previous marriage, who is often aggressive toward his stepmother (Kolya himself has a temper and is given to angry outbursts, made worse by the excessive consumption of vodka - a habit shared by all the characters).

At the start of the movie, Kolya, who owns a garage, is in the midst of a conflict with the corrupt mayor, a former gangster who lays claim to Kolya’s land and home, arguing that he is not the legal owner. Over two and a half hours of deft filmmaking, “Leviathan” unfolds the sometimes surprising twists of this conflict, in which Kolya enlists the help of a friend, a Moscovite lawyer. Some of the plot turns are left deliberately vague, which only adds to the effectiveness of the result.

The entire local establishment, including the church and courts, unites to defeat Kolya. What makes “Leviathan” so powerful is not just the way it follows Kolya’s clash with the system – which offers a criticism of the contemporary Russian government as caring only for itself and not the individual – but the way Zvyagintsev is able to make Kolya’s struggle at once a private drama and a political allegory with symbolic elements, some of them situated in the landscape.

The festival’s big winner, “Winter Sleep,” was awarded the Palme d’Or on Saturday night. (Although the festival did not officially close until the next day, the ceremony was moved up due to European elections scheduled for Sunday.) Ceylan (“Climates,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”) is one of the greatest directors working today and a previous Cannes winner (claiming best director for “Three Monkeys” in 2008 and the Jury Prize for “Anatolia” in 2011). He dedicated the Palme d’Or – presented to him by Quentin Tarantino and a barefoot Uma Thurman – to the young people of Turkey, especially those killed during the past year.

“Winter Sleep” follows the stormy relationships within a Turkish family that runs a hotel in Anatolia. Before its win was announced, the movie also won the international critics’ prize at Cannes.