Xavier Dolan: Beyond His Years

Dedicated to Matt Wager

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Xavier Dolan was born eight months before me in 1989, his talent knows no bounds. A child actor by profession from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he turned to writing and directing in 2009 with his astonishing debut I Killed My Mother (Dolan, 2009) This was followed by Heartbeats (Dolan, 2010), Laurence Anyways (Dolan, 2012), Tom at the Farm (Dolan, 2013) and Mommy (Dolan, 2014). This year It’s Only the End of the World (Dolan, 2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. His next film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (Dolan, 2018) will be his first both in English and set outside of Quebec; it will be shot mostly in New York and is said to be released in 2018.

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What struck me about Mommy (which shared the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes with Goodbye to Language (Godard, 2014) was Dolan’s profound interest in the mother and son arguing and how far the actors take it with incredible intensity. Of course the same can be said of I Killed My Mother which now brings to mind arguments in the films of Fassbinder, Almodovar and Cassavetes. I Killed My Mother stars the nervy and insecure Hubert played Dolan himself, a teenager at odds with his mother (Anne Dorval). Dolan mostly films interior scenes; a family home, a local school, a teacher’s home, a hamburger bar, the crammed apartment of Hubert’s friend, Hubert’s father home, a video store and a boarding school. Dolan’s exterior scenes have a visual and/or emotional charge, think of Hubert’s mother and her friend discussing Hubert’s homosexuality or Hubert alone in a Quebec street surrounded only by street lights.

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I went to a packed screening of It’s Only the End of the World in Dublin, with his prizes at Cannes Dolan seems to be taking the film world by storm. The film concerns a family of five, a mother Martine (Nathalie Baye) her sons Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) and Antoine (Vincent Cassel), her daughter Suzanne (Lèa Seydoux) and Antoine’s wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard). Louis has AIDS; the film is a 90 minute struggle to reveal this to his family in a story of rage and turmoil. Cassel’s tall psyche and brash face embody the emotionally violent Antoine, a kind of older version of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from Mommy. Spending five minutes with either Antoine or Steve in reality would be nearly impossible yet they are incredibly captivating to watch on screen. The arguments in It’s Only the End of the World have Dolan’s melodramatic stamp, most of the audience I saw it with responded to it as a black comedy of manners. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical 1990 play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Dolan’s second adaptation after Tom at the Farm. The Quebec neighbourhood in the film is bright and green, a glimmer of hope if it can exist in a world of such bleak characters. There is a stunning close-up of Cotillard early on in the film which I read in the moment to be a glaze of infatuation for Louis. Dolan’s hear for the music of his generation is clear (Blink 182) and surprising (Moby) and is a reminder of the rarity of a working director who is under 30.

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Heartbeats concerns a love triangle between Nicolas (Niels Schneider), Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) set in a Montreal of twenty-somethings’ (Generation Y) obsessive ramblings about their love lives or lack of them. I found this film to be a similar viewing experience to My Golden Days (Desplechin, 2015), both films contain performances and individual moments that I admire but the film overall lacks something more needed at the core, an engaging narrative. With Dolan this comes with more expectation as I have not seen any other of Arnaud Desplechin’s films. As my friend Matt informed me; other Dolan films such as I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy take something on, something of substance or more accurately something of essence. The three central performances in Heartbeats are strong, Schneider for his pretentiousness, Chokri for her desperation and Dolan for his obsession which finally reaches a breaking point. Dolan’s choice of music such as Dalida’s ‘Bang, Bang’ as the film’s theme song, House of Pain’s catchy ‘Jump Around’ and Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Cello suite No. 1 Prelude in C and G Major respectively give the film some emotion weight at times. Dolan’s use of camera placement and slow-motion technique absorb in some fine moments such as Nicolas’ birthday party sequence, Francis going to the store to buy marshmallows and eating one slowly as he fantasises about Nicolas and a walk in rain between Marie and Francis. Writing about this now I’m remembering the use of slow motion in Every Man for Himself (Godard, 1980) and In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000). With Heartbeats Dolan draws a canvas, sets his stylistic tendency without a strong enough narrative motor, which sometimes relies on narcissistic discussion between strangers when more focus is needed for his protagonists.

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Laurence Anyways features incredible performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence Alia, a Montreal a high school English teacher who is a transsexual and Suzanne Clement as Fred, his girlfriend who sticks by him, they love each other deeply. Dolan experiments more with slow motion techniques, he is deeply fascinated by profiles from front and back. Quebec as always in Dolan’s films is filled with colour from its characters, costumes (designed by Dolan himself) and set design. Dolan’s soundtrack sets the tone with some songs familiar, some all the better for being discovered in the context of his and his music supervisors’ selections. Strong scenes feature Dolan’s trademark, arguments; from a confrontation between Fred and an elderly waitress with no respect and Poupaud and Clement’s dynamic scenes together. It features strange sequences of water flowing through a ceiling on Fred and another of clothes falling from the sky as Laurence and Fred roam free through the mystical Isle of Black. The film simply floats.

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Tom at the Farm has the feel of L’argent (Bresson, 1983), of a character being taken in by a farm woman with hardly any questions asked initially. It also has a strange echo of a one man version of The Big Chill (Kasdan, 1983), a man visiting a remote house for the funeral of a loved one. The film is based on a 2011 play by Michel-Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan. Tom (Dolan) has come to pay his respects to the family of his deceased boyfriend Guillaume. Guillaume’s psychotic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is on par with Steve in Mommy and Antoine in It’s Only the End of the World. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is oblivious to Guillaume’s homosexuality and Francis’ sadistic nature. Tom becomes Francis’ victim for his sick and violent games which including beatings and bursting Tom’s tires leaving him trapped in a remote Quebec farm outback. Tom and Guillaume’s colleague Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is believed by Agathe to have been Guillaume’s lover; Sarah’s appearance in the film’s narrative is a breath of fresh air. The film’s feeling of isolation is superbly photographed in stark colours of the Quebec night but I felt there was something missing at the film’s centre. Tom’s vague characterisation is intriguing however.

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It’s nearly two years ago since I discovered Dolan’s films with Mommy which I consider to be his masterpiece. Diane (Anne Dorval) one of Dolan’s most regular collaborators is a single mother taking care of her fifteen year old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) who has ADHD and psychotic tendencies. Enter Kyla, an outsider to their relationship, who is a nervous stuttering teacher on sabbatical played by the brilliant Suzanne Clement (completely different each time she works with Dolan from I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways to Mommy). The Quebec neighbourhood is as bright as ever with autumn leaves and sunshine coming through the street of such family tragedy like in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and Far from Heaven (Haynes, 2002). The character Steve plays his deceased father’s  mix-tape which includes White Flag by Dido, Blue (Da Ba Dee) by Eiffel 65 and Wonderwall by Oasis. White Flag sets the tone of the family life in the Quebec suburb for Kyla with her emotionally absent husband Patrick (Alexandre Goyette) and their daughter (Isabelle Nèlisse). Blue (Da Ba Dee) sets boundaries between Steve and Kyla, Pilon has an incredibly natural ability to embody his character through stark body language and shocking intensity. What can be said for Wonderwall, perhaps the most overused pop song of the 1990s? It is given new and eternal life in this film in an astonishing sequence of Steve breaking the fourth wall (changing the screen’s aspect ratio from 1:1 to 1.85:1) it has to seen to believed and a lesser film would have made this into a gimmick but this film’s heart and intensity earns such a bold and breathtaking move. Dorval’s Diane loves her son, her facial gestures are perfect, almost devilish at times. Clement’s Kyla’s hand gestures speak volumes of nerves and repression which she lets out unexpectedly in one scene. Maybe Pilon is the Jean-Pierre Leaud of now! The film climaxes with the heavenly sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, the visual settling is white, a white of endless entrapment which is about to be set free.

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Dolan’s films are noted highly for their performances and their stylistic tendencies of montage and slow motion. His camera tracks sometimes feel like they are a character’s POV or a POV of a vehicle in which they are traveling in but sometimes the camera is just tracking the characters like road scenes in Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. Dolan sometimes likes to build up a scene slowly by showing us two characters at a table when they are in fact three and the third person vibrates the scene with inappropriate comments, we can call this trait Dolanesque. His sound turns down when you do not expect it, like when Blue (Da Ba Dee) fades out and back in for dramatic effect at a crucial moment in Mommy. Then again all moments in Dolan’s cinema are in a sense crucial, its Quebec setting of brightness and possibly hopefulness intrigues the viewer. Diane’s fantasy of Steve’s future in Mommy is like an advert, a montage between the style of the Six Feet Under (Ball, 2001-2005) finale and Boyhood (Linklater, 2014). It is like all of the fantasy sequences in Dolan’s films, soon the Quebecoise melodramatic vision of reality sets in.

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