One of the things I have missed most while Dylan has been without respite is the cinema. I’ve always loved the movies, especially in the late afternoon, so there was little I liked better on a night off than to catch an early evening film at the cinema across the road from my office. It’s more than four months, now, since I was able to do that. I can hardly believe I’ve managed for so long.
Recently there was a day when I thought I wouldn’t manage. The yearning was physical: I longed for the particular darkness and to feel the tang of marmalade ice cream on my tongue as I waited, in a pulse of white light, for the film to begin. How, I asked myself, could I have this? Screenings don’t start until the afternoon; I couldn’t be home in time for Dylan’s return from day centre even if I went to the first film of the day. Maybe the out-of-town multiplex offered earlier start times but not for the films I wanted to see (or with marmalade ice cream).
I would have to think creatively. The independent cinema I favour offers special screenings for particular sections of the community; once a month, for example, there is an autism-friendly event. I scanned the listings to see if there were an early day group I could join. The new mum club looked good but I didn’t know anyone with a baby I could borrow. The Over-55s? Now that would be the one. There was an 11 a.m. screening that day of a film called Mommy. Perfect.
I requested a day’s leave then checked the blurb. Xavier Dolan wasn’t a director I knew and the film was not one I recognised. My heart fell as I read; I wasn’t sure a narrative about a single mother’s struggle to support her violent adult son was what I needed. I was living this reality; I had coped with two incidents that week already. My plan had been to have a couple of hours not thinking about being such a mommy. I let myself feel sorry for myself for a while. Then it occurred to me that today’s screening might be a gift: perhaps there was something art could teach this just-coping mommy about life?
Once I was seated in the pulse of light I started to relax. This was exactly what I needed, I told myself. There was a hum of anticipation in the auditorium as a man took the stage; tickets for the 55 club, it turned out, included a talk. Xavier Dolan, I discovered, is a young Quebecois film maker who had turned 26 only the previous week. Mommy was his 5th film; his first, made when he was 19 years old, had received an eight minute standing ovation at the Cannes film festival. Dolan is so very talented, the man giving the introduction mused, and still so young, it will be exciting to see where he goes next.
Dolan had, apparently, created a slightly altered version of Canada for Mommy – a ‘stretched reality’ . The film returned to one of Dolan’s favourite themes: the claustrophobic relationship between a mother and son (his previous films included the ‘semi-autobiographical’ The Reason I Killed My Mother). In order to represent the intensity of the mother-son relationship Dolan had filmed Mommy in something called a 1:1 aspect ratio. This would be immediately apparent to us, we were told, as the screen would look narrower than usual. Dolan had claimed this was the only way to shoot his film; the 1:1 aspect ratio ‘mirrors the turned-in circumstances’ of the mother and son. I had guessed that Mommy would be bone-close viewing. Now I was sure of it. I settled back to watch our narrow world unfold onto a narrowed screen.
Earlier that week Dylan had become anxious one evening. Later, when I considered the possible triggers, I couldn’t identify with any certainty what might have caused it. He’d had a calm enough day and was watching a film. My daughter was in her room. I was working in the attic. Perhaps it was a scene in the movie that upset Dylan. Or a sudden memory . Maybe it was confusion at the changes since his sister returned. Whatever it was it made Dylan come hunting for me, intent on tearing off my ears (his particular behaviour). Usually I can predict such an attack and ensure I am safe but on this occasion Dylan had me cornered. I held my arms up to protect myself but I knew it was no good. It would have been much worse, I’m sure, if my daughter hadn’t come to see what the fuss was about and pulled Dylan off.
That’s how it can be sometimes. Dylan doesn’t mean to hurt me. It is a flight/fight response to something which has made him anxious and emotionally overloaded. I probably head off three or four times as many of these incidents as I witness. It’s easy not to notice when we get something right, though, or to overlook the times we handle a situation skilfully. We tend, instead, to remember when we miss something or a situation goes wrong. Dolan understands this; he gives us a mommy sometimes at her glorious best and some days way out of her depth.
The son in Mommy is not autistic. ADHD is mentioned but not as the root of violence; we are offered social as well as psychological explanations (poverty, an absent father, inadequate social care). Nonetheless I recognised the relationship between mother and son and found links with my own experience.
Dolan wants us to see the closeness of the mother-son relationship as both nourishing and limiting. The mother (‘Die’) is the best thing her son, Steve, has; when everyone else has given up on him, she refuses to. But Die also holds him back. She cannot contain her son’s anger by narrowing his world to the walls of her house; when she tries, the violence turns on her. At these times the screen can hardly contain the charge; it spills out of frame as mother and son struggle for control. The intensity of the relationship (its 1:1 aspect ratio) becomes clear as they absorb the violence, refusing to give up on each other or walk away.
As I watched I kept thinking about a book I’d been reading. Phoebe Caldwell, reflecting on her work with autistic adults with learning disabilities, suggests that challenging behaviour can arise from a failure to differentiate from the mother. In ‘normal’ child development, Caldwell explains, mother and baby enter a ‘dyadic state’ in which baby’s every movement and action triggers a response from the mother. For the baby this is confirming; it learns something about its mother but it also learns something about itself. The baby therefore starts to understand that it is separate from the mother. It is possible, Caldwell suggests, that an autistic baby’s brain is unable to interpret the mother’s signals and the baby therefore fails to develop a separate sense of ‘self’. As a result:
Mother and baby remain bonded in this bubble of infantile need – infant because it needs to survive, and mother because she is drawn in by the maternal instinct to meet infantile need. The mother’s agenda remains the child. The baby may grow physically into adult but remains in the infantile state of critical need for the mother’s nurture. It still retains the fear of extinction if it feels it is not receiving this nurture or that the ‘dyad’, the infant survival state, is threatened. (Caldwell, 2006, p. 140)
Violence and aggression are common, Caldwell claims, where there has been a failure to separate from the mother as an infant. When the situation is complicated by autism, she suggests, it is extremely difficult to establish separation as an adult. Direct physical separation, Caldwell explains: ‘simply heightens anxiety, which sends the adult-infant back into the bubble.’ (Caldwell, 2006, p. 141). Recently I have been asking myself whether Dylan and I could be in a dyadic bubble. Perhaps, I reflected as I sat in the darkened cinema, this is what linked me to the woman on the narrowed screen?
Viewed through the lens of failure to differentiate from the mother, Dolan’s film made much sense to me. There are other representations of mothering in the film, however. The neighbour, Kyla, for example who befriends Die and Steve. Although we are aware Kyla has children, we don’t see her performing her mothering role; this part of her identity is ‘bracketed’. Kyla’s initial contact with Die and Steve is as a mother-son unit but she soon develops friendships with them as separate individuals. ‘From the point of view of the outsider ‘, Caldwell notes:
the mother/adult-infant bubble ‘feels’ exclusive and others involved in care will feel shut out. It is difficult to cross the boundary either way – the feelings involved are so intense and primal. It requires enormous emotional effort to establish communication between the different parties involved in care since all parties will feel protective. However, a real sharing of feeling may be almost the only way to stand back and see what is happening. (Caldwell, 2006. p. 141).
This process is, I think, one of Dolan’s preoccupations. When Kyla first gets drawn into the mother and son’s world, Die is struggling to establish boundaries that she and Steve can keep. Kyla’s increasing involvement in their lives is transformative. She gives Die a break from caring; she shares some of the practical and emotional responsibility of parenting Steve; she equips mother and son with education and life skills; and, crucially, she models alternative (non-maternal and non-infantilising) ways of building relationships.
Part way through the movie it seems that this support will be enough. It’s a film about community, I thought to myself; Dolan is inviting us to consider society’s role in supporting families. Mommy does not, however, resolve so simply. Unable to continue supporting her son, even with the help of Kyla, Die turns Steve over to the authorities. In a harrowing closing scene we are reminded that there are no winners in this situation. If you are vulnerable and troubled – because you are autistic, perhaps, or have ADHD or learning disabilities or are anxious or mentally ill – then you will struggle to receive the support you need either at home or from the state.
The laws on care and incarceration which Dolan explores may be a ‘stretched reality’ but they didn’t feel too far away from where we are or might be in my own son’s life time. While Steve’s relationship with his mother is claustrophobic and limiting, public services are depicted as chronically damaging. There is a sense in which the relationship between the mother and son, for all its flaws, had been the greater resource; for while such a relationship can be claustrophobic it can also be enabling. Although by the end of the film Die can no longer manage alone, she had at least tried to confound the skeptics; from the ‘turned in’ circumstances of a mother and son, stretched vision can also come. Mommy turned out to be gift indeed.
Dolan, Xavier (2014) [Director] Mommy
Caldwell, Phoebe (2006) Finding You Finding Me. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Showroom cinema by libcom.org; Mommy by soundonsight;Xavier Dolan by english.rfi.fr; interior of the Showroom by thechildrensmediaconference