In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, as the Cannes Film Festival continues in France, we take a look at another filmmaker hoping to win the coveted Palme d’Or: French-Canadian provocateur Xavier Dolan, who started his polarizing career with an equally-polarizing film called I Killed My Mother.
Xavier Dolan has become one of cinema’s most divisive figures of late. His big-hearted, unironic style has as many detractors as it does admirers, while Dolan’s own outspoken persona has been ridiculed as the most clichéd version of the enfant terrible stock trait. Mads Mikkelsen’s gaping reaction to Dolan’s emotional speech at Cannes for his Grand Prix win in 2016 is now irrevocably tied to Dolan’s brand: a token of exasperation that keeps being passed around whenever a new Dolan project approaches from the ether. The naysayers buckle in to see what can be lambasted anew, while the admirers draw in a deep breath and hope that what they see is not going to be mercilessly mocked. His English debut was fodder of the very worst kind for the haters—and admittedly I couldn’t find much in the way of praise when I saw it at TIFF last year. That was like self-parody in all the wrong ways. He took everything people dislike about his work and doubled down on it as if in protest. So who knows what Matthias & Maxime will be like. If he continues to direct as if in a sore mood, with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, I don’t think critics will be any kinder. If, however, he continues pursuing his aims with the mind of telling an emotional story, then maybe opinions will change.
I Killed My Mother is what set him on this path in the first place. It has many elements of what makes a Xavier Dolan so distinctive: frayed emotions that are amplified by loud arguments and mask an inability to communicate; paratextual interpolations such as onscreen text extracted from poems and journals; non-diegetic inserts related to a character’s state of mind (e.g. a shot of Chantale in a coffin to imply Hubert’s burning desire for her death after an exhausting argument); a pop-based soundtrack (albeit not as unironically pop-based as Dolan’s later films); and a heavily autobiographical story that gives a sense of stepping back in time and looking at a private history through an artistic framework. This film is not as deliberately brash as his later works, but the emotional tempestuousness is in the same register; so much of the film involves Dolan screaming temperamentally at Anne Dorval that the tsunami wave of angst is difficult to endure for extended periods. Dolan knows how to lock into an affective transmission and rides it for as long as he can, and I can understand why this is either exhausting or satirical for different sets of viewers. The reason I can put up with it is because Dolan has no desire to hold back. If there’s a relationship as toxic as the one between Hubert and Chantale, he’s going to ignore all pretenses and be as honest as he can about it. The art of film is not there to soften the pain of abuse and cool the raging quarrels between mother and son. Exposing its ugliness and intensity is the very thing that allows for cathartic closure. He exorcises these demons because it is a property of the healing process, and he is as generous as can be about it.
There is a fearlessness to Dolan that I continue to admire, even if his antics in recent years have made it rather “uncool” to champion him. I’ll admit that I want him to do well and to show his critics that he is more than a mere flash in the pan. He has a chance to get back on track in a few days. We’ll see if it comes to fruition.
I Killed My Mother is currently available on DVD from Kino Lorber. American residents can also stream it on The Criterion Channel.