It is hard for a twenty-something film buff not to envy Québécois director Xavier Dolan. His first five films all debuted at either the Cannes or Venice film festival, with each picking up at least one award. He has inspired comparison to filmmakers as varied as Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kubrick. Telefilm Canada also selected his newest film, Mommy (now playing in theatres), to represent the country in the foreign language film category at the 2014 Oscars. He is also a triple threat – writing, directing and acting – in three of his five films.
Any filmmaker with that résumé would be someone to admire and herald as a national treasure. What makes Dolan the target of much jealousy is his youth. He is only 25.
With such accomplishment at a tender age, many cannot help but label Dolan as a “wunderkind.” In an interview with the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell last month, the French-Canadian auteur explained he is bothered at how many critics fixate on his youth. “I feel like I still read reviews from people who correct my homework instead of saying, ‘Is it a bad movie or is it a good movie?’” he told Howell. “These reviews would have no credibility or value if the movie had been shot exactly the same way by someone older.”
However, does Dolan deserve the hype and the attention? Is the French-Canadian – who TFS users voted as the Best Canadian Screenwriter earlier this year – as potent and powerful a filmmaker as critics and audiences say?
It is not just impressive that Dolan has managed to achieve so much in so little time. He has already created enough stylistic trademarks and thematic similarities between his five films to make him an auteur. All of his films, excluding Heartbeats, deal with a tumultuous relationship between a mother and son. Further, each of the five titles feature moments of stark realism, as well as stunning fantasy sequences. Few directors blend pop soundtracks as seamlessly with the characters and story events. (Once you see Mommy, you may never hear Oasis’ “Wonderwall” the same way.)
This balance between harsh truth and elaborate fiction is one aspect that makes him an effective writer/director. He manages to tell compelling, character-based stories, but with a touch of whimsy and flair. The conflicts in his dramas are tense and complex, yet the fantasy moments give the characters room to reveal their desires in a way that teaches us more about them.
His career so far is bookended by two titles centering on a teenage boy’s difficult relationship with his mother. I Killed My Mother was a small sensation when it came out in 2009, and Dolan confirmed that it was semi-autobiographical. The films stars Dolan as Hubert, a gay teen trying to escape the shackles of home and his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval). He treats Chantale poorly, calling her the worst mother in the world and claiming she has Alzheimer’s when she forgets something. He also pretends she has died so that he doesn’t have to interview her for a school assignment, hence the film’s title.
The debut is bold, full of nuanced writing and directorial flourishes. The tense family scenes are cramped two-shots between mother and son, which explores their dynamic in a raw, intimate way. Any time Hubert is frustrated, Dolan (as director) inserts a suitable image: glass shattering, Hubert throwing dishes on the ground, Chantale lying in her deathbed. Despite their chilly relationship, Dolan makes sure to explore their tenderness toward each other, although he often takes Hubert’s side more than Chantale’s.
I Killed My Mother is filled with certain stylistic touches Dolan uses in his later films: tightly framed two-person scenes, bright colours that express the moods of the characters, onscreen text and tantalizing slow motion. That theme of family conflict shows its head again in Mommy, his newest (and perhaps finest) film. Dorval, again, plays a mother (named Diane) who must take care of her delinquent teenage son, Steve (Antoine Olivier-Pilon) after he is kicked out of a detention centre. Similar to I Killed My Mother, the film moves between showing the tough love between the characters and the moments of affection.
Mommy is even more raw than its predecessor, though. Dolan squeezes much of the drama into a 1:1 aspect ratio, with black bars taking over the left and right sides of the screen. This traps us in the characters’ perpetual tug of tenderness and torment. The drama may be tense, but like his other features, Dolan gives us time to settle into the character’s imagination. (In one of the dream sequences near the end, he even expands the picture to take a widescreen ratio to show an imagined future for Diane and Steve.)
So far in his short but successful career, Laurence Anyways is Dolan’s most love-it-or-hate-it title. (This writer loves it.) The film, which won the Queer Palm at Cannes, chronicles the 10-year journey of Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud), as he changes gender from male to female. The film focuses on both Laurence’s struggles and strains, as well as those of his girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément), who takes some time to get used to her lover’s new identity.
As in his previous film, Dolan balances restrained two-person conversations, which puts the characters’ expressive faces front and centre, with a flurry of colourful images and dizzying cinematography. In Laurence Anyways, he focuses on the shifting seasons. Close-ups on drifting snow, falling leaves and dripping rain symbolize a change in how the protagonist transforms. Some call it an example of style over substance. However, his stylistic efforts are all in the pursuit of providing meaning to the story and adding feeling to the characters’ interior lives. His freewheeling energy is motivated by how it brings colour and variety to what we know about the characters.
Dolan’s other two films, Heartbeats and Tom at the Farm, don’t quite have the same stride and success, but are still notable achievements. The former is an update on the love triangle from Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Instead of two men enamored with a woman, it is a man and a woman (Dolan and Monia Chokri) in love with the same Adonis (Niels Schneider). Breezy and light, Heartbeats is abundantly stylish to the point that it intrudes on the story. The same pop music, slow motion photography and atmospheric colour are still there. Like I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats also features interviews with young adults recounting their love stories, similar to the asides from When Harry Met Sally. It’s the plot that lacks the same inspiration as Dolan’s other films.
Meanwhile, Tom at the Farm shows that Dolan has what it takes to adapt material that isn’t his own. (It comes from a Michel Marc Bouchard stage play.) However, the story and themes fit well within the director’s oeuvre. It follows Tom (Dolan, with frizzled blonde hair), who drives to the Quebec countryside to attend the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. However, the deceased’s mom, Agathe (Lise Roy), does not know her son is gay, while older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), asks Tom to keep that sexual identity a secret. Stylistically, his fourth film is quite bleak and lacks colour but proved Dolan could leave his expressive flair behind to make a film more about hidden secrets and lies.
Dolan is an exciting voice that is both accessible and challenging. With the ability to hone his style in stories of genuine substance, it is no wonder so many aspiring filmmakers envy his talent. Finally, there is a new Canadian filmmaker with loads of talent that can represent us on a world stage while making us proud of our industry at home.