Whether being praised or hated, Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan has shined internationally through his films. Critics often highlight his youth (at 29 he has already made seven films), separating him from more accomplished directors. Some lambast him for a so-called ‘pretention’ – I’d argue its ambition. However, even with these critiques, Dolan’s filmography was very acclaimed until It’s Just the End of The World divided Cannes audiences in 2016.
His first English-language film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan appears also to have been polarizing. Following its Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere this month, The Guardian called it a “self-parody” and “a dubious mess”.
From Dolan’s debut I Killed My Mother to It’s Only the End of The World, Headstuff look back on the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
I Killed My Mother (2009)
Earning several awards and a standing ovation at 2009 Cannes, this first feature lays the basis for one of Dolan’s recurring motifs – the relationship between a mother and her son.
The 16-year-old Hubert, played by Dolan himself, despises his mother. The gay teenager hates everything from her personality to her kitsch decoration tastes. Starring Anne Dorval (Le Coeur a ses raisons, Heal the Living) in the role of the mother and Suzanne Clement (It’s Not Me I Swear! The Other Half) as a teacher and a guide, it is the first of many great collaborations between Dolan and the Canadian actresses.
The resentment of Hubert toward his mother leads to violent verbal sword plays. “Even when I try to imagine what the biggest shit in the world would look like, it can’t overcome you,” says Hubert to his mother who just shrugs her shoulders. The two are incapable to communicate and the few attempts fail as the meaning of their arguments gets lost.
Even if the cinematography here is still shy compared to Dolan’s next films, the black and white close ups on Hubert sharing his thoughts are notable, as are the poetic extracts written on the screen. Meanwhile, the fast editing of the painting scene with the central character’s lover echoes the passion of first love. I Killed My Mother established Dolan immediately as a very visual filmmaker.
Heartbeats tells the story of two bestfriends both falling in love with Nicholas (Niels Schneider, I Killed My Mother, Everything Is fine), leading to a strange love triangle. As a result, rivalries and jealousies impact the dynamic of the central duo Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri, Laurence Anyways, Ravenous).
While the plot is simple, Dolan depicts feisty youth with refreshing coloured filters during scenes of intimacy. From the gorgeous framing to the beautiful use of slow motion – often set to either Dalida’s rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ or Indochine’s ‘Troisième sexe’ popular culture is infused with sensual mise en scene.
Yet again there are the monologues delivered straight to the camera, shot in close-up. While this could appear a basic way to get into a character’s head, the dialogue is so strong, tinged with an acid humor to regale the spectator.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
Laurence Anyways might be Dolan’s most accomplished film visually. Winning the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at 2012 TIFF, the film stirred some controversy when its director refused to collect his Queer Palm award from Cannes, calling the category ‘marginalising’.
It stars Melvil Poupaud (Broken English, The Refuge) and Suzanne Clement, who won the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress at 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Set in the 90s, high school teacher and an award-winning novelist Laurence reveals to her lover Fred that she feels she is a woman. The story follows the couple’s relationship on and off for over a decade, as well as Laurence’s bond with her mother, played by Nathalie Baye (Catch Me If You Can).
At three hours, the film drags in its second half. However, even with that, its outstanding. While Dolan shoots in a documentary style to evoke a sense of realism, Laurence Anyways is imbued with flashes of fantasy and rich symbolism.
Crushing waves fall on Fred as she reads Laurence’s book, highlighting her emotional state. Scored by electro music, the music video-esque scene where hundreds of clothes fall on the lovers walking in slow motion (see below) is terrific. Between fantasy taking place inside the characters’ minds and gritty realism, Dolan’s camera captures a spectrum of strong emotions.
Tom at the Farm (2013)
Based on a Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, Tom at the Farm is in complete contrast with Dolan’s oeuvre in terms of genre. After his boyfriend’s death, Tom (Dolan) visits the family of the deceased in their isolated farm house. There he meets the mother of Guillaume (Lise Roy – cast from the stage version) and his violent brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Polytechnique). He learns that Guillaume had lied about having a girlfriend that the mother is desperate to see.
Even if the film is a change of pace for the director – recalling a creepy Hitchcokian psychological thriller, it still explores themes which interest Dolan such as homosexuality and family relationships.
Suspense is shaped through screeching violins and atmospheric lighting – the latter particularly during a darkly lit, intense chase scene. The film walks a thin line between sexual tension (between Tom and his lover’s brother) and horror.
Dolan recently revealed that his next feature Matthias & Maxime will be a mixture between the aesthetic of Tom at the Farm and the energy of Mommy.
Mommy is Dolan’s masterpiece, winning the Jury Prize at 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The comedy drama introduced shining young star Antoine Olivier Pilon (1:54) to a wider audience.
The film again focuses on the impasse between a single mother, played by an electrifying Anne Dorval, and her violent son (Pilon excelling in the role) diagnosed with ADHD. Suzanne Clement plays a neighbor with a stutter who helps the teenager with his studies.
Framed in a 1:1 ratio, Dolan brings the viewer closer to the three lead characters who all feel boxed in and trapped in their lives. He manages to convey the protagonists’ working-class life with realism, making the central leads feel all like fully fleshed out people. Meanwhile, his script is wonderfully snappy.
Dolan continues to succeed in reinventing the use of popular songs in films. While Mommy features Eiffel 65’s Blue (Da Ba Dee), the magnificent Vivo Per Lei, or the Celine Dion’s On ne change pas, it’s the use of the often mocked Wonderwall by Oasis which is truly incredible. For a brief moment of freedom. the 1:1 frame widens for a montage set to the track. However, it’s not long before reality once again sets in.
“Mommy is a pessimistic film about the society we’re living in [but] not about the people who fill it. I like writing about protagonists who are in a position of revolt… who want to affirm their importance in the eyes of the society which ostracizes them,” Dolan told On n’est pas couché.
“Women’s roles are often more interesting and deeper than men’s roles. The woman is in search for a position in society regarding her place, rights and freedom. It creates characters with texture and asperity. It inspires me in my writing, my compassion for them, my need to defend them, understand them… letting them scream their distress, trying to make them win the battle,” added the director.
It’s Only the End of The World (2016)
It’s Only the End of The World faced the challenge of adapting the play of Jean-Luc Lagarce where characters constantly fail to express themselves, filling the air with useless chatter. It tells the story of Louis played by Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising, Saint Laurent), a dramatist returning to his home to announce his death.
Dolan’s biggest cast up until this point – the film stars Baye once again, as well as Lea Seydoux, (Blue Is the Warmest Color), Marion Cotillard, (La Vie en Rose) and Vincent Cassel (Irreversible, Mesrine).
Unfortunately, Cotillard and Seydoux phone in their performances and some scenes still feel more suited for the stage than screen. Yet, Baye, Ulliel and Cassel make the movie work, particularly the latter playing a violent brother, so rude that he brings the only comical moments in a very serious film.
The characters evolve within a claustrophobic, heavy atmosphere. The endless close-ups and cold colors create a feeling of oppression and remoteness in the viewer, symbolizing the way in which Louis feels. The only exterior scene takes place in a car and even then, we are like children sitting on the backseats witnessing an argument, powerless to interject.
A moment of affection between Louis and his mother is depicted as a play of light and shade, symbolizing the complexity of their relationship, plunging us into their intimacy. The movie leads to a heartbreaking, deafening climax where the unspoken and the truth intersect in a pitch-perfect ending.