The Rise and Rise of Xavier Dolan…

This week sees the release of both of French Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s offerings; I killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mere) and Heartbeats (Les Amours imaginaires). Dolan, a Québécois actor and filmmaker, has moved away from his child acting roots to deliver a set of films that are both stylish, confident and engaging, which is quite remarkable as he is only 22 years old. A man of many talents (he writes, directs and stars in both his films), Dolan also lends his voice to Stan from the Quebec version of South Park, but unlike his work on that show his films are a world apart from the animated satire.

I Killed My Mother (2009) follows the story of Hubert (Dolan) who is constantly warring with his mother (Anne Dorval).  A close pair in the past, Hubert now rejects his mother and from the first scene of the film is pointing out her faults. He hates the way she eats, her choice of fashion and constantly accuses her of having Alzheimer’s when she forgets anything he has asked her. As Hubert begins to find solace at his boyfriend’s (François Arnaud) house and in conversation with his teacher (Suzanne Clément), his mother finds out that he’s gay from his boyfriend’s mother. This is the last straw and after staging an intervention at his father’s house Hubert is sent to boarding school, a place that has as many temptations as dangers. Hubert can’t handle being there and runs away to “his kingdom”, which turns out to be the house he lived in as a child. His mother comes to get him and together they sit overlooking the beach.

Partly funded by Dolan himself I Killed My Mother made a splash at Cannes in 2009 where it won three awards during the Director’s fortnight program and at the tender age of 20 it put Dolan firmly into the “ones to watch category”. The film is a triumph as an intimate portrayal of the conflict between mother and son. As both Dolan and Dorval performances are individually fantastic and work cohesively to bring a lot of emotion to the screen. Their arguments will evoke memories from anyone who suffered with teenage angst or suffered through raising a teenager. Dolan is a likable lead and his portrayal swings from loving his mother to outright hatred throughout the film. The video diary Hubert makes helps the audience understand what he’s going through and Dolan gives these moments a calm vulnerability which allows us to feel sympathetic for his plight, but on the other hand his angst ridden outburst shows him up to be a petulant and selfish child; and almost after every outburst the audience allegiance aligns with the Mother.

This is in no small part due to Dorval’s performance as she steals every scene she’s in. She wears her unique wardrobe with pride and is a mother who wants an easy life. She seems to take everything in her stride and even though she is forced to find out her son’s sexuality from a stranger she puts on a brave face and works around it, until another argument provokes her into sending her son to boarding school. But never do her actions feel malicious, she wants what is best for her son and she is doing what she believes is right.This is the beauty of Dorval’s performance, you believe all her actions are out of love and coupled with Dolan’s angst ridden, but honest, portrayal of Hubert the pair bring a believable and raw central performance which raises the film from it’s simple narrative strands. Also as a side note Dorval has perhaps the best scene in the film when she has a heated outburst over the phone to a teacher at Hubert’s boarding school after finding out Hubert has run away.

For a first time director Dolan is assured in his direction, framing himself nearly off-screen to show the emotional distance between mother and son. He is clearly a cinephile and some of the shots of the film are reminiscent of other director’s work, for example the slow motion shots which seem to be scored with the same music as the slow motion shots in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love. But these little homage’s are interwoven into the film rather than a cheeky wink to the screen and the slow motion outbursts that Hubert help convey his sense of frustration and anger perfectly. As mentioned before his video diary is a central part of the film and they are shot in black and white with his bathroom as the backdrop. They are perhaps the most engaging moments of the film as the black and white strips away Hubert’s defences, which only adds to his vulnerability. Another technique he uses, which he later uses to great effect in Heartbeats, is how he cuts between his two leads as both hit an emotional revelation. The scene in which his mother finds his video diary is quite powerful and it is inter-cut with Hubert being beaten up at boarding school. At the end of the scene both characters come to an emotional realisation, which leads them back together.

Another way Dolan excels is in the way he handles Hubert’s homosexuality. It is never overstated or just thrown away, it merely intertwines with the rest of the films emotional beats. Although it has some powerful emotions running through its core Dolan’s script also sprinkles quite a bit of humour throughout the film. The fights sometimes have comical outcomes that even the characters laugh at; the whole trip to the video store for example. These moments balance out the rest of the films raw emotions and create a mostly realistic but always entertaining portrayal of a common situation.

Heartbeats (2010), much like I Killed My Mother, focuses on a time worn scenario. However unlike his previous film you could be mistaken for thinking that Dolan has left the subtlety of believability behind in favour for an obsession with cinematic overstatement. The film looks at the bisexual love triangle between Francis (Dolan) who is a soft-spoken gay man, his best friend Marie (Monia Chokri) who’s in love with ‘vintage’ paraphernalia, and object of desire Nicolas (Niels Schneider, who is also in I Killed Your Mother as the boarding school love interest). The duo meets Nicolas at a party and they both instantly fall for him. As the film continues their growing desire for him leads them into conflict with each other as they begin to compete for his affections. They spend their time stylising themselves after people he has an interest in (Audrey Hepburn and James Dean), buy cautiously picked out gifts for his birthday and even have matching post-coitus conversations about him with their respective bedfellows. But it all ends in tragedy on a trip to the country where the jealousy between Francis and Marie boils over into a full on scuffle in the leaves. After that Nicolas wants nothing more and leave the pair to reconcile over their mutual rejection. A year later the trio come together once more at a party but Francis and Marie present a unified front and reject Nicolas, but their cycle of joint fixation continues as the friends spy another handsome man at the party.

Whereas I Killed My Mother brought Dolan a lot of attention and excitement at what sort of films he could produce in the future, Heartbeats brings an air of disappointment but that’s not to say it doesn’t have it’s own merits. However compared to his previous film Heartbeats doesn’t have a strong emotional core for the audience to grab hold of. In fact with the major characters being very self obsessed and petty it is hard to route for them at all. But perhaps that isn’t the point. Chokri and Dolan are both excellent in their portrayal of jealous friends after the same man. Chokri evokes hipster chic as she walks around in her vintage garb and she is suitably neurotic. Dolan is just as stylish and his Francis obsession seems even more intense especially the scene in Nicolas’s apartment when he is alone in the bedroom. However Nicolas himself is a bit too one-dimensional and never seems that interested in the pair. But even though that could be seen as a negative it is to Dolan’s credit that he doesn’t explore Nicolas’s personality, instead focusing on his psychological impact on his admirers.

Again Dolan seems to take cues from other directors with Pedro Almodóvar seemingly the first choice for the films colour palette. He seems to be over reliant on visual trickery to inject a sense of grace into the films scenario, almost as if he wants to distract the audience from its narrative clichés. Slow motion is used heavily in the film, there is a stream of poetic imagery throughout the film which descends somewhat into the absurd (the marshmallow rain shower is the prime culprit) and the films use of music overstates the mood. However there are some wonderful uses for these visual tricks and a stand out moment is when the film cuts between Francis and Marie getting prepared to meet Nicolas at a café for the first time. The film shows every detail of their preparation, using slow motion to great effect. Tracing every foot step towards the café which adds a sense of anticipation for not just the characters but the audience as well and this is all set to a fantastic version of Bang Bang sung by Dalida (the films theme tune). It’s a masterful sequence, which is as sleek as it is stylish. But this is the films problem it does often seem to be more style than substance.

The script isn’t as emotive as I Killed My Mother, due perhaps to the fact that his first film is semi-autobiographical, but it does have the same trade mark humour Dolan seems to go for. A nervous type of humour that comes from the scenario rather than the dialogue and Heartbeats biggest chuckle comes from a repetition of the slow motion preparation sequence described above. This time they are picking presents for Nicolas’s birthday and the film again builds up the anticipation and both characters are suitably stylish, but when they arrive they are ridiculously over dressed and it’s a great visual gag and is followed by a humorous bit of banter about which of their presents is better.

Although the film has a few failings compared to Dolan’s first film it still zips along at an engaging pace and it is more charming than most films dealing with similar issues. But what it lacks in an emotional backbone it does not manage to regain in it’s artistic direction. The film often feels like Dolan is experimenting with film and although this is great for the filmmaker it isn’t for the audience.

However if Dolan manages to marry the raw emotional storytelling of I Killed My Mother with the effortlessly stylish filmmaking of  Heartbeats, then that would be a very interesting film to watch. But don’t write him off as at 22 he is still one to watch out for.

Both Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother are released on September 12th

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