Crash Course: The Films of Xavier Dolan

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Part of getting older is realizing that your age is no longer the main reason you don’t have a long list of wonderful accomplishments under your belt and the first thing that makes you realize this is when you start to notice people who are about your age or even younger than you but who still have careers that have accomplished more than you likely ever will.  For instance, there’s this French Canadian guy named Xavier Dolan who has already directed five fully produced feature length films and won a major award at the Cannes Film Festival despite being about twenty seven years old.  I’ve had a fifteen month head start on life over this guy and in the same span of time I’ve successfully started a seldom read movie blog, accumulated a semi respectable number of Letterboxd followers, and beaten a decent number of video games… yeah, maybe this is the wrong person to play “keeping up with the Joneses with.”  In my defense, Dolan did benefit from quite a bit of privileged along the way.  His father was an actor with a a bit of sway in the Canadian entertainment industry (dude apparently voiced Rodrigo Borgia in “Assassins Creed II”) and he used his connections to give his son a career as a child actor who performed in a number of Quebecois voice dubs of major Hollywood films (he’s apparently the French-Canadian voice of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series).  As such he had a lot of connections and money to parlay into his directing career… but there are a lot of child stars and rich kids out there, they don’t all end up winning the Grand Prix at major film festivals.  One way or another I had to figure out what was making this dude’s filmmaking was all about before he got even more famous.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

DolanIKilledMyMotherXavier Dolan’s first film was released in 2009 when he would have been 20, meaning he must have been as young as 19 when he made it and even younger when he was first writing it.  This is an important thing to note because the film wasn’t some kind of genre exercise; it was a piece of personal filmmaking that Dolan has claimed to be semi-autobiographical.  The thing about that is when you’re an upper middle class 19 year old the only real life experiences you’re likely to be able to draw on are your experiences being a bratty teenager and that is largely what this movie is about.  Specifically the movie is about the various conflicts between Dolan’s surrogate and his mother. Before you ask, no, the title is not literal but there are certainly a number of screaming matches between the two over issues that seem kind of trivial to the outside observer.  I don’t want to say that the mother is completely blameless in all of this as she does provoke some of this tension needlessly and could probably have stood to have a little more empathy for how some of the things she does would come off to an immature teenage mind, but she isn’t abusive or anything and if anything seemed downright permissive from my perspective and the protagonist’s anger towards her mostly seems irrational from the outside looking in.  It’s not entirely clear how much Dolan expects us to agree with this protagonist’s disdain for his mother.  There are certainly moments in the movie that seem to suggest that he understands that this woman is doing the best she can, but he also doesn’t seem too interested in judging his younger self for his immaturity and one’s tolerance for the movie will largely depend on their willingness to go along with this character’s kind of whiney worldview.  Either way this is not bad for an indie debut.  Probably more of a festival type movie than the kind of thing I’d recommend to people who aren’t film devotees, but Dolan has a clear sense of how to block out a scene and the performances are pretty good for a film made at this level.

Hearbeats (2010)

DolanHeartbeatsHaving gotten his semi-autobiographical coming of age indie out of the way with I Killed My Mother Xavier Dolan moved on to the other major pillar of indie filmmaking: movies about the petty romantic travails of hip young adults who don’t have any real problems.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mumblecore movie, but it’s in the neighborhood.  Needless to say this is a brand of indie I have a lot less patience for and in general Heartbeats didn’t do a lot for me, but I think the movie’s problems go a little deeper than mere matters of taste.  The film is about two friends, a gay man and a straight woman, who both find themselves attracted to the same guy and who are both simultaneously “friend-zoned” by this guy over the course of the film.  That’s kind of a thin concept to begin with and the movie didn’t do a whole lot to interest me in either of these two characters and it isn’t exactly clear what it was about this guy that interested them so much beyond basic physical attraction.  I also feel like this is a step backwards in terms of basic visual filmmaking with Dolan experimenting with handheld documentrary-ish photography that often has a bunch of random zooms in it.  The aesthetic is just noticeable enough to be obnoxious but not experimental enough to actually be interesting and given the general disinterest I had in the love triangle at the film’s center that’s a problem.  This is definitely a sophomore slump for Dolan, but it’s such a minor blip of a movie that it isn’t the kind of thing you’re likely to hold too much against him.

Laurence Anyways (2012)

DolanLaurenceAnywaysXavier Dolan’s 2012 film Laurence Anyways marks a number of firsts for the filmmaker.  For one thing, it’s the first of his directorial efforts that he doesn’t also star in and it’s also arguably the first of his films that really puts queer struggles front and center rather than as a secondary theme.  More importantly this feels like a transition away from semi-amateur “learning efforts” into actual accomplished filmmaking.  The film begins in the early 1990s and tells the story of Laurence, a thirty-something literature teacher who decides to come out as a transgender woman and begins to present as such in public.  This being the 90s this doesn’t exactly go well and it puts quite the strain on her relationship with her girlfriend, especially as she starts to withdraw from the general public after the awkward situations become too much.  It’s pretty crazy that Dolan was able to write a movie about ten years if the lives of two adults given that the dude had only himself been an adult for four years when he wrote the damn thing and if I didn’t know any better I would have guessed he was adapting a novel, but this is in fact a very ambitious original screenplay.  As bold as it was for Dolan to tackle something like this, he may have bitten off a little more than he could chew.  The movie is 168 minutes long and while I could envision a version of this movie that earns that running time I’m not sure this is it.  The movie really feels like its spinning its wheels towards the end and I’m not sure I ever really connected with the central character, who was kind of a stubborn asshole.  I like that the film didn’t feel obligated to make Laurence into some kind of flawless victim but at times it felt like it went more than a little too far in the other direction.

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Tom at the Farm (2013)

DolanTomattheFarmXavier Dolan’s first two movies had a very millennial view of homosexuality, which is to say that it was something that had its downsides but ultimately wasn’t that big a deal.  In his third and fourth films he seems to have sought to tell stories that moved away from the safe confines of modern Montreal and examined the more difficult experiences of people who lived in less tolerant times and places.  This is particularly true of his fourth film, Tom at the Farm, which is about a city-dwelling homosexual who drives out to a rural area for the funeral of a deceased lover only to learn that no one there knew about his departed boyfriend’s sexual orientation or his relation to Tom.  From that description you would probably expect this to be a sort of sedate melodrama where family secrets are confronted and everyone learns a lesson… but no, instead this is a weird sort of Hitchcockian thriller/psychodrama where Tom must confront his deceased lover’s psychotic brother who seems at times wildly homophobic and at other times like he’s actually himself a self-hating closet-case.  Rather than an entirely sympathetic victim, Tom himself emerges as a sort of self-destructive masochist who puts up with this crazy brother-in-law of sorts way longer than any rational person would and starts to take on a sort of Stockholm syndrome of sorts in the film’s second half.  I can’t say that I entirely followed the psychology behind all this.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Stranger by the Lake (which debuted the same year) in that it was a queer tinged thriller in which the protagonist seems to put himself in harm’s way for reasons that seem like they’d make more sense to a gay audience than they do to me.  Still, Dolan takes to the film’s genre elements with a pretty adept hand and is clearly improving more and more as a filmmaker.

Mommy (2014)

DolanMommyFor me Xavier Dolan didn’t really seem to become a force in international cinema until he made the film Mommy in 2014, which won the Gran Prix at Cannes (where he tied with Jean-Luc Godard, a canny move in which the oldest and youngest directors with movies in competition shared a prize) and then finally got some legit American distribution.  It’s the first Dolan film without a queer element (which I’d like to hope isn’t the main reason it got a wider audience) but in some ways feels like a bit of a redo of his first film I Killed My Mother in that it focuses in on a relationship between a single mother and her troubled son.  The difference is that this feels less autobiographical and also because things are turned up a lot.  Here the son isn’t just a little bratty, he’s a borderline juvenile delinquent with some sort of serious behavioral disorder, and the mother is a bit younger and less capable.  Contrast this latest movie with that first movie and you can definitely see that Dolan’s vision as a filmmaker has been honed in the short five years since his debut although he is still prone to some gimmicky choices.  Most notably here he’s decided to film his film a the otherwise unheard of 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a framing that’s even more narrow than the already narrow by modern standards 1.37:1 ratio.  This isn’t the first time Dolan has messed around with aspect ratios (Laurence Anyways was in the Academy ratio and Tom at the Farm occasionally shifted to an extremely wide ratio during tense scenes) but it’s the most notable.  He does some kind of interesting things with this canvas but I’m not sure that the benefits to this outweigh the fact that this ratio is weird and ugly and a bit distracting.   Looking past the superficialities though Dolan does a pretty serviceable job of combining his usual idiosyncrasies with a sort of social realism that he isn’t otherwise known for.  The movie does run a bit longer than it probably needs to but he gets some good performances out of his actors and in general this just seems like the movie where all of the skills he’s been building just comes together.  Maybe not a masterpiece or anything but it’s a movie good enough to play with the big boys and it makes me pretty excited for where Dolan goes moving forward.

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