Get to know Xavier Dolan, international cinema’s most exciting young talent
It’s the unwritten duty of the film critic not only to levy judgement on any given week’s multiplex releases, but also to champion the hidden independent or foreign gems that may not otherwise cross the general populace’s attentions. Which is a nice way of saying that critics spend a lot of time trying to get readers to give a shit about something they probably don’t give a shit about. Sure, the new picture from Sweden’s pre-eminent existentially comic auteur may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’ll really, really be somebody’s cup of tea, and so it falls upon the critic to ensure that such films are adequately dragged out of obscurity.
Such is not the case with the filmography of Xavier Dolan.
His work easily clears many of the obstacles separating foreign expertise from American adoration: political stuff is mostly restrained to the background, and aside from the French dialogue, precious little is prohibitively specific to Dolan’s native Quebec. He sticks to domestically recognizable story structures, stylizing melodrama and psycho-thrillers to fit his own vision. But his appeal spans more than simple ease of translation. An unnamable but unmistakable “nowness” crackles in every frame of Dolan’s five films — a robust output, considering that he made his debut at Cannes with 2009’s I Killed My Mother shortly after his twentieth birthday.
Dolan directly plays into his own youth, practically projecting the sort of creative audacity only found in wunderkinds through his grandly ambitious cinematic gestures. After all, who but a teenager would have the stones to write, direct, edit, and star in his independently-mounted debut picture, and then push it through into the most prestigious film festival on the planet?
Below, we’ve compiled a guide to the five films of Dolan’s corpus, but first a bit of explanation: We’ve ordered them here chronologically, but Tom At The Farm comes to American theaters on Friday. The dummies who bore witness to the film’s debut at Venice in 2013 forgot to pick it up for international distribution, and the film’s just kinda floated around Europe for the past couple of years. Seriously, that’s what happened. Nobody got around to acquiring this film for distribution until now.
I Killed My Mother (2009)
In case you’ve ever felt good about your accomplishments, consider the fact that Dolan drew up the script to this lightly auto-biographical debut at age sixteen. And sure, the precocious talent still had plenty of room to grow — too many sequences move in whirligigs, taking pleasure in motion but ultimately going nowhere. Even so, the core components that’d define the artistic signature of Dolan were firmly in place and on full display.
From the outset, Dolan knew that his own queer sexuality would figure prominently into the fabric of his films, as would his own history of emotional volatility. He poured his most personal energies into the story about unruly Quebecois teen Hubert (Dolan) and his fraught relationship with his mother (Anne Dorval), splaying all of his insecurities and shames and perverse confidence onto the screen. It is, in effect, the first film for and by the blogging generation.
Dolan’s always worn his influences on his sleeve — a bit odd, accounting for the soundbite from a Film Comment interview in which he claims, “…I’m not that influenced by directors. I was influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson: it happened once.” But the touch of Wong Kar-wai is strong with this one, breathing life into Dolan’s gauzy, expressionistically colorful compositions. He followed the old writer’s adage of sticking to what you know, and stayed on with the tortured-queer-love angle.
This time, Dolan plays Francis, who has fallen head-over-heels in lust with the same boy as his BFF Marie (Monia Chokri). The pals enter into an erotically charged game of one-upsmanship for the attentions of the exceedingly pretty Nicolas (Niels Schneider). In fact, pretty people are rather central to the formal makeup of Dolan’s style. Slavishly devoted shots of gorgeous men and women pepper his films, a glorious expression of barely post-adolescent libido. John Woo had doves. David Lynch had red curtains. Xavier Dolan has hot people, usually in a state of at least partial undress.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
We remarked on the film’s remarkably curated soundtrack elsewhere on this site in the past, but there’s really no overstating Dolan’s phenomenal ear for music. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese have long treated their films like personal mixtapes, binding together their favorite classics for audiences’ listening pleasure. Dolan’s films more closely resemble an iTunes library set to Shuffle All in their eclecticism.
He indelibly imprints on Fever Ray’s inhuman, haunting “If I Had A Heart” for the grand unveiling of Laurence, the trans woman at the center of the film. He claims Dalida’s rendition of “Bang Bang” for the recurring leitmotif in Heartbeats, too, and just how ironic is the “Wonderwall” needle-drop in Mommy supposed to be? The music, however, takes a supporting role behind a pair of towering performances from Melvil Poupaud as Laurence and Suzanne Clément as lover-turned-confidante Frédérique. They flirt, fight, fall in and out of love, and each exchange is so completely scrubbed free of bullshit that it plays with a searing realness.
Tom At The Farm (2013)
After stepping out of the latest big-budget crapapalooza, it’s tempting to sigh and mutter about how they don’t make ‘em like they used to. With Tom At The Farm, Dolan disproved that notion beyond all debate. The Hitchcock vibes are so strong here, viewers expect to see Jimmy Stewart pop his little head out from behind a corner at any moment. Dolan’s always fixated on charged interpersonal relationships, but he turns up the heat on the tensions between the central pair here until it threatens to bubble over into violence.
After sitting Laurence Anyways out, Dolan gets in front of the camera again to star as Tom, who travels out to the country to attend his boyfriend Guillaume’s funeral. There, he learns that Guillaume’s family was not only unaware of Tom, but unaware of the young man’s homosexuality at all. And the deceased’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is intent on keeping things that way, threatening Tom with increasingly sexual violence if he should expose the late Guillaume’s preferences. Their deranged pas-de-deux freely oscillates between intimidation and seduction, creating an atmosphere of sensual tension that Hitch would approve of.
For his fifth feature, Dolan circled back to give I Killed My Mother another go. Working from the same basic template of explosive mother-son drama, Dolan updated his own ideas and showed just how far he’s come in the past five years alone. Dolan, well past his teen-role years, steps out of the spotlight for Antoine-Olivier Pilon to take up the violent-teen role. Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément reprise their roles as, respectively, Pilon’s mother and the interloper that attempts to provide this broken family with a last shred of hope.
Dolan drew a lot of flak for his decision to shoot this film with a resolution of 1:1, as opposed to the usual 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, leaving him with a square print that most closely resembles an Instagram post.# But it’s an ingenious choice that perfectly fits Dolan’s intentions as a filmmaker. The slimmed aspect ratio frames the subjects in the shot instead of the shot itself; it fits the shape of the human body, or the face. This is Dolan in microcosm. Underneath all of the stylistic majesty, underneath the too-cool-to-be-cool soundtrack cuts, underneath the ravishingly good-looking actors, Dolan’s films have only ever been truly about one thing: people, and how one person’s emotional needs grind against another’s until they generate sparks.
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