When 25 year-old French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan accepted a Jury Prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, he told jury chair Jane Campion, “Your Piano made me want to write roles for women…beautiful women with soul and will and strength, not victims, not objects.” Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival was a great day for such complicated and objectification-averse female characters…tellingly, they were all in French-language films.
The lead character of Dolan’s Mommy, played with a mix of gusto and grace by Anne Dorval, is indeed a complex woman. She is devoted to her adolescent son, a blonde hellcat whose learning disorders and raging hormones easily boil over into violent rage, and she defends him even when his pathology threatens her life. She pleads for her son to behave, accepts him when he doesn’t, and sees that most of his bad behavior is directly learned from her. Mommy is an uneven and unwieldly movie, but it is also wonderfully ecstatic filmmaking, with a gonzo use of slow motion and 1990s pop songs.
Marion Cotillard also portrays a working mother in crisis in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night. This film is more schematic and story-driven than Mommy, but also more so than any other Dardenne brothers film before. The set-up is basically 12 Angry Men meets the world economic crisis – in a shattering performance, Cotillard plays a working mother whose colleagues vote to have her fired rather than lose their bonuses. She is given the weekend to convince her co-workers to forgo the bonus and take her back, an ego-demolishing task that doesn’t exactly mix well with her anti-depressants. As she drags herself from co-worker to co-worker, her misery becomes their misery, and a profound image of working-class dehumanization is drawn – these people are all powerless…until they’re handed a weapon to off one of their one.
The 22 year-old female protagonist in Stephane Lafleur’s Tu Dors Nicole (translation: You’re Sleeping Nicole) does not have any children…in fact, she doesn’t have much of anything. She still lives at home, works a dead-end job, flutters between beds, and nurses a go-nowhere crush on the drummer in her older brother’s band. Tu Dors Nicole is as withdrawn and disaffected and devoid of personality as its lead character, but Lafleur shows a knack for deadpan comedy, and the film is beautifully shot in black and white.
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