Caspar Salmon writes about Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s first two features, I Killed My Mother (2009) and Heartbeats (2010), screening as part our Club Ciné strand, showcasing the best of French Cinema at PicturehouseCentral.
The first I ever saw of Xavier Dolan was a filmed interview of him in Cannes, where he was presenting I Killed MyMother, his first film. The young director, aged 20, was beautiful, and his composure and confidence looked like arrogance. Asked what his influences were, he answered that he loved Titanic.
You can draw several conclusions from that answer. The first is that Dolan likes to ruffle feathers – picking a huge blockbuster as your favourite film in a festival dedicated to arthouse cinema shows that you’re prepared to go for it. This bears out in terms of his films, especially I Killed My Mother. Dolan’s style is in your-face; confrontational. Though he favours extreme composed shots in his first film, there is something very direct, almost attacking about his presentation. He goes for bold colours, the film has a thumping rhythm, and the story itself plays on a question of conflict, opposing Hubert, an angry young gay man and his overbearing mother. The fury and animosity with which the two set upon each other reveal Dolan’s youth, but they also speak to something recurring in his work, which is the idea of combat, of struggle. Dolan’s characters often have problems to do with anger, and there is a great violence in his oeuvre, from the shocking gay-bashing scene in I Killed My Mother to the vicious sadomasochism of Tom At The Farm and the lashing-out of his young hero in Mommy. I Killed My Mother shows him prepared to go on the attack already, with its feisty title, punchy aesthetic, and two main characters filmed like boxers in the ring.
A second conclusion you could take away from the Titanic remark is that Dolan is drawn to spectacle. You could even say, quite truthfully, that he isn’t afraid of vulgarity. Although Heartbeats is in many respects Dolan’s quietest, most sensitive film, his use of imagery in it shows that he wants to paint with broad colours, conjuring a fierce world. In telling the story of two friends (played by him and Monia Chokri) who fall for the same boy, he shows great depth of emotion, and a sure touch when it comes to characterisation. But watch closely for the dramatic picture-making: soon, the beloved boy, figured as a cherub with a shock of blonde curls and played freshly and ironically by Niels Schneider as a kind of aloof angel, takes on a satanic air during a scene by a campfire at night, as the flames light up his face with a red glow. Dolan plays with composition like this all the time, throwing some big effects at these ostensibly miniature movies.
A third interpretation would be that the allusion to Titanic betrays Dolan’s humour. What hits you most of all in his work–perhaps less so in Laurence Anyways–is how truly funny he is. Heartbeats’ protagonists are drawn together by their status as outsiders, but also their lightness of wit, issuing bon mots about the modern world like latterday Quebecois Oscar Wildes, and likewise I Killed My Mother hums with comical verve. Keep an eye out for a truly delicious scene in that film where Hubert’s teacher tries to coax him to get into her car, and, when he hesitates, offers him some sweets. That scene shows you Dolan at his skittish best, his most sweetly piss-taking; he pulls this scene off because his command of character is total, and his directing of actors is so assured.
The always-say-no-to-a-stranger scene in I Killed My Mother is key: it tells you a lot about Dolan’s maturity as a writer, and his ways of surprising his audience. Time and again, even in his early films which still bear traces of formal unevenness, he comes at a scene or storyline from a new angle. For instance, while Heartbeats is in large part about heartbreak, about misplaced, unrequited love, his protagonists don’t pine virginally, but both have active and fulfilling sex lives with people they seem more or less fond of. And while Dolan pokes fun at their self-importance and blindness, he is careful not to make them naïve: these are two richly drawn, highly intelligent people who know themselves and each other, which makes the film more than simply an adolescent love triangle, and more of a reflection on the nature of love and friendship.
Dolan acts in both these films, and you could make the case that, although he is a formidable director of other actors, he is near his best when he films himself. As an actor he lacks a certain discipline and polish, but his beauty, his verbal dexterity, his intensity and his kind of self-satirising vanity, make him oddly appealing. Crucially, and touchingly, he seems to be playing an alter ego in these early films, which centre on growing up: if the first film seems him coming to terms with himself, the second opens up the protagonist’s universe to see him dealing with love and loss. The tone of I Killed My Mother is belligerent and claustrophobic, moving on to become surprisingly nostalgic in Heartbeats. Taken as a pair, they show a startling progression in the talent and career of a tremendously exciting filmmaker.
Join us at Picturehouse Central on Saturday 26 November, 1pm for a double bill of I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats. Book tickets.