A film prodigy; a self-indulgent narcissist; an enfant terrible; a precocious auteur; a self-inflated hipster; a cinematic wunderkind – Xavier Dolan is equally revered and reviled for his prestige and flair. Call him what you may, the Quebecois film-maker has produced three exuberant, stylish, and ambitious films in the space of just four years. His sphere of control extends to set design, art direction, score selection, and even costume – a unique meticulousness uncharacteristic of today’s film-makers. Melbourne’s Speakeasy Cinema showcased Xavier Dolan’s films – what he calls his ‘Impossible Loves’ trilogy – back-to-back in a single, eight hour long screening. Along with my fellow cinephiles and Dolan enthusiasts, I embarked on a movie marathon and a cinematic experience like no other.
I admit that my fascination with Xavier Dolan undeniably comes partly from a place of envy. At the tender age of nineteen, Dolan blasted onto the scene with J’ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother), a film which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. Screening in competition at the Director’s Fortnight, it went on to win three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and was selected as Canada’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2009 Oscars.
I Killed My Mother is semi-autobiographical in origin, depicting an explosive, tumultuous relationship between a teenage son and his mother. Dolan appears in the film as 16 year-old Hubert Minel, an adolescent who struggles to reconcile the intense, paradoxical emotions of love and hate he feels towards his mother. “I wasn’t born to have a mother,” Hubert declares to the audience. “I could love anyone else but she.” Self-consciously and purposely styled, the film is interspersed with flights of fancy reminiscent of Jean-Luc Goddard, and sombre, black and white confessional videos in which Hubert speaks candidly to the camera.
The film is almost unbearably claustrophobic and insular, revealing Dolan’s remarkable ear for dialogue and language. He provides an uncompromising, intimate view of bitter domestic fights, demonstrating the vicious way we utilize words as ammunition. Dolan isn’t afraid to portray Hubert as emotionally aggressive and realistically self-centred; yet, he also imbues Hubert with painstaking vulnerability and keen self- awareness. It is telling, however, that the hero of the film is undoubtedly his mother, Chantale Minel, played beautifully by Anne Dorval.
Dolan’s second film, Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats), traverses different terrain altogether. A meditation on youthful obsession and unfounded passion, the film elicits the bitter-sweet nature of unrequited love. Heartbeats focuses on the friendship between Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) as it is disrupted by the presence 0f Nicolas (Niels
Schneider); an alluring, yet unreadable, blond Adonis. The two friends find themselves fixated by their new acquaintance, and quickly descend into consuming, baseless infatuation, both vying, unsuccessfully, for Nicolas’ affections.
Dolan’s visual vocabulary evokes the style of the French New Wave, and directors such as Wong Kar Wai or Pedro Almodovar. The primary criticism against Heartbeats – and Dolan as a director – is that the film is more indicative of ‘style over substance’. Of course, as a fan, I disagree. While the film is certainly hyper-stylized and visually overstated – long, slow takes of Chokri smoking elegantly in slow motion are plentiful – I find the film’s lavish aesthetic and imagery to be emotionally engaging, serving to compound the artifice and superficiality of romantic yearning.
Laurence Anyways is Dolan’s most recent feature, a film that he calls ‘his Titanic’ – an epic, operatic love story spanning over a decade, and approaching almost three hours in length. Set in Montreal during the late 80’s/early 90’s, the story centers on Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred Belair (Suzanne Clément) as their relationship is thrown askew when Laurence reveals his desire to live as a woman.
Dolan chronicles the trajectory of Laurence’s transformation as he faces the inevitable pitfalls and prejudices from the outside world: from his family, his colleagues, and his profession. If this sounds like a political film, it is not – at its core, Laurence Anyways is a humane story, a narrative on the potency of unbridled love. Xavier Dolan has a remarkable attunement with characters who see themselves as outsiders; characters who are different, who exist on the borders. Poupaud and Clement bring the film to life with an intense vigor and passion, revealing, with incredible nuance and vitality, profoundly intimate and complex interactions between two lovers at odds.
Dolan is a film-maker who exhibits an expert instinct for cinema: for powerful imagery; for style, tone, and composition; for an assured, bold use of colour; for an impeccable musical score; for command over the medium and the form. He is able to fuse audacious, experimental style with emotional restraint, and his films are infused with an exceptional authenticity and sensitivity.
His fourth feature, a psychological thriller called Tom at the Farm, premiered at the Venice Film Festival this August, and may well be a departure from his signature romanticism. Rumour has it, Dolan will finish directing his fifth film at the end of this year…which leaves me to wonder if the man ever sleeps.