Xavier Dolan is a French-Canadian filmmaker from Quebec, Canada, who has directed five movies shown at Festival de Cannes in an equal amount of years. In this feature series, Analysis of Xavier Dolan, we will present an in-depth look at each of his movies (from J’ai tué ma mère to Tom à la ferme) in anticipation of his upcoming, Mommy.
Illustration by: Marie Solberg
First up, J’ai tué ma mère, also known by it’s international title, I Killed My Mother. This is Dolan’s debut movie, but unlike so many other debutant directors, one could only identify this as a debut by looking at it side by side with his later projects.
The movie is a semi-autobiographical story about the relationship between Hubert Minel, played by Xavier Dolan himself, and his mother, Chantale Lemming (Anne Dorval). The movie opens with a quote by Guy De Maupassant, “We love our mother unknowingly, and only realize how deep-rooted that love is at the ultimate separation.”. It cuts to an ultra close up – in black and white – of Hubert’s eyes, as he arranges words in his head. Words that will describe his relationship and thoughts surrounding his mother. They work as a catalyst for Maupassant’s quote, realised in the mind of an adolescent in Quebec, Canada. “I still love her. I can look at her, talk to her, be next to her. But… I can’t be her son.”
As a baroquesque butterfly fills the screen, colors emerge, accompanied by an orchestral musical score. The movie becomes a montage of still photos. More butterflies, small marble statues – one of which carries the crown of thorns. Then we see Hubert’s eyes again, filled with contempt as they stare off screen and on to his mother. Just in these few shots, Dolan has set the stage for Hubert’s issues with his mother. The baroque butterflies, and the marble statues is pictured from their home, and it becomes apparent that Chantale is – in more ways than one – a caricature of strange and puzzling character traits. It’s the perfect representation of a mother and son-relationship in the transition between youth and adulthood, because as we all know, this is the one period where love and contempt really does transcend one another without excluding the other (talking as an 20 year old white male)
Much can be said about the narrative and sentimentality of, J’ai tué ma mère, but before we dive into that, it’s fitting to take a look at the audiovisual signature of Dolan, which has a much deeper presence in his later movies. Dolan has made a name for himself in film festival and cinephile circuits over the past few years, where his hyper stylized and grandiose audiovisuals are cause for many a discussion. Where some call him out on being pretentious and pompous, others celebrate these exact qualities. Because Dolan’s language speaks pretentious and pompous, but done with the finesse and delicacy of a genius.
I feel we – as an modern movie going audience – shy away from things because they dare to go all out with their ideas. In an age where we get a constant stream of feedback, and the opinions of others dominate our internet space, we’ve reached a point where one idea or thought, creates a meta-version of itself on arrival. Because of this, there will always be an opposite looming over us and our thoughts, and it becomes difficult to differentiate between the original concept and the meta-version because of how quick it happens before our eyes. The pretentious, pompous and grandiose are all victims of this. As technology sped up, it seemed as if every medium (from movies and music to video games and cartoons) tried to find a middle ground in the last decade. Video games tried (and still does) to become more cinematic (see Heavy Rain, Uncharted-series, etc) while movies wanted the same energy and cartoonish (but “realistic”) action as video games could present (see Sucker Punch, The Matrix, etc).
The paragraph above describes why I believe many people shy away from – or dislikes – Xavier Dolan’s auteur signature. He switches between self-composed, historic orchestral masterpieces and songs with a pop-cultural significance, all the while, composing scenes that present a feeling or a state of mind. It’s a trick you can’t do in any other medium, and it goes to show that Dolan embraces movies as both a way to present his stories and as a medium.
In this movie, he is clearly experimenting – trying to figure out his own style – and I want to talk about the four most noticable aspects.
- Number one is his how he chooses to show the audience text the characters read or write throughout the movie. Most movies would do a close up of the text the audience needs to know, or shoot an over the shoulder shot, so we would (kinda) see it in the characters point of view. In House of Cards text messages pop up in small bubbles, and it is this last example that share most with Dolan. When Hubert writes a beautiful poem about his feelings towards his mother, we simply get a transcript of it in the middle of the screen (see picture below 1). Later, when he reads a note from a book given to him by his teacher (Suzanne Clément), the paragraph he was meant to read pops up in the same way. It’s effective, and makes the movie flow much better than if he had shot an over the shoulder scene.
- Number two is how he frames his characters. While objects more often than not are placed center stage, he leaves a lot of air and room in character shots. Let’s take the scene where Hubert is in the dinner with his teacher. Hubert is on the right side of the table, with his teacher on the left. Dolan then goes to place Hubert in the far left of the frame – which leaves much empty space on his right – and the teacher on the far right – which in turn, leaves much empty space to her left (see pictures 2, 3 and 4). This forces them closer together, and seeing as he uses this technique in one of the scenes where Hubert really does connect to someone other than his boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud), it works well. Later on, when both Hubert’s mother and father are giving him a hard time – and announcing their plan to send him off to boarding school, Dolan pushed Hubert down. Just picturing his head and neck in the middle of the screen . Hubert is at his lowest moment in life – or at least in the movie – and this frame really illustrates how his surroundings have pushed him to his knees.
- Number three is his still image montages. They come throughout the movie, and most of the time, work as a stage curtain. One act is done, and as the images flash before us, the next begins. In the opening minutes of the movie, he uses images to introduce us to his mother and her house. It pictures decor. This is also done when other rooms are established later on. Posters of James Dean and Polaroid photos cover the walls of Hubert and Antonin. To establish a room is to establish large parts of a character, and this is an original way of doing it. It works well with how the rest of the movie is edited, and thus does it’s job well.
- Number four, and maybe his most celebrated and disliked, the spontaneous music videos. Slow motion shots of the ordinary, done in an extraordinary way. The most prevalent example in J’ai tué ma mère is around the movies half way point. Hubert and his boyfriend, Antonin, have been asked to drip paint the office complex of Antonin’s mother. The art of drip paint, or dripping, is an abstract form of painting, where the artist drips, pours or in a fashion, throws, paint at a canvas. It’s impossible to talk about this form of art, without drawing lines to Jackson Pollock, and Dolan honors the expressionist style with grace. As Hubert and Antonin dip their brushes in buckets of paint, the scenes are filled with colors and the contrast between them. Red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange, they all compliment each other and goes to show the knowledge Dolan has about art. As they fill the wall with an array of colors, time speeds up, and creates an ever-dynamic changing canvas. This really encapsulate the idea of dripping. It’s about dynamic expressionism. Impulse takes control, and all you have to do is have an idea in your head. The scene continues with the two of them having sex on the floor, and in a top-down point of view, we get an intimate shot of them, as the kiss, caress and love each other. They’re hands filled with paint, like gloves. They are together, and end up as one. A part of their canvas. (watch the scene below 5)
As much as I like to distance myself from the Cannes audience, it’s not without reason that J’ai tué ma mère received an eight-minute standing ovation after its premiere in 2009. It also won three awards in the Director’ Fortnight program the same year.
It’s hard to talk about Xavier Dolan without mentioning – or at least thinking about – his age. At 25 he has presented five movies in Cannes, which is impressive, but I like to think that we can discuss his later movies without talking about his age. However, with J’ai tué ma mère, and Les Amours Imaginaires for that matter, its all so deep-rooted in Dolans own adolescence that it warrants a talking point. Because unlike so many other movies that look upon adolescence, these two movies share one similarity above all else; presence in time and experience.
Where most movies look back in time, and try to recapture something, Dolan is still in the midst of it all. This allows him to capture it in a way you really can’t do in retrospect. You can capture the scene, the narrative and the characters, but it will be impossible to capture the mood. We change and mature with time, and to look back – even with fondness – the picture will forever have been tainted by our own minds. Dolan has even talked about this himself, in an interview with Film Comment. He says some scenes could have ended earlier – too not have dragged on in slow motion as long as they do – and in cineschool terms he might be correct, but I (myself in the age of adolescence) firmly believe the length of these scenes encapsulates what the characters feel in a distinct, unreplicable way.
But Dolans greatest strength is how he deals with subjects of a taboo nature. Sadly, most movies are still having issues portraying LGBT-characters, and often caricature them in a shameful way. Dolan however, portrays his characters (from Huberts homosexuality in J’ai tué ma mère to Laurence’s transgenderism in Laurence Anyways) with respect and real human connection. In J’ai tué ma mère, the relationship between Hubert and Antonin never take center stage, but work as any other human relationship. They are boyfriends, but the movie neither judges or celebrates this, because it doesn’t need to. As the movie presents it, homosexuality should be a normality.
Dolan’s stories feel deeply personal, and in return, manages to work its way into the audience on multiple levels. It feels like a heartfelt confession, but also something more. A dusty reflection of our own imperfections, but with a poignant message – clear as red lipstick on a mirror – telling us, “It’s okay. You are okay.”