Xavier Dolan has been making films for seven years; he turns twenty-seven next week, so I’ll let you do the maths there. Ever since his debut “I Killed My Mother” in 2009, a dark, ferocious, savage (and semi-autobiographical) dissection of the relationship between a flawed mother and her gay son on the verge of his sexual, emotional and moral awakenings, Dolan has gone from strength to strength, making fascinating, observant, emphatic films that recall the jeu d’esprit of a Fellini, and the thematic cohesion of a Bergman (soon, I hope Dolan himself will become a byword; the psychological buoyancy of a Dolan!).
What’s most impressive is that in addition to directing, he writes all of his films and has starred in a great deal of them as well (most boldly in his debut; one wonders what conversations he had with his mother after the premiere). Last year he even took some time out to direct the music video for Adele’s “Hello”, which currently stands on YouTube at nearly one and a half billion views. He is effectively a wunderkind, churning out films at a Woody Allen level straight off the bat (he even has two films scheduled for this year, which conceivably excites me more than Christmas).
One might think that this level of proficiency might result in a dumbing down of quality; this is, remarkably, not the case. Each of his films, whilst being recognisably his, have been slowly evolving; there has always been a darkness, and an edge, to his works (the finale of “I Killed”, with Dolan clutching at his mother whilst she runs away in her wedding dress, is pure Freud), but as each of his films have gone on he’s clung less to the sentimental or the overt, and embraced subtlety.
Take, for example, his fourth film, “Tom At The Farm”, and his first film based on an original screenplay not his own. That film positively drips with unease and dread, and outside of the claustrophobic mis-en-scene and looming set design, the film works because the interior psychological states are only to be guessed at. What does Tom (Dolan), who in the wake of his boyfriend’s death has gone to visit the farm of his childhood, only to find his boyfriend’s parents had no idea he was gay, think? When he dances with his boyfriend’s brother Francis (Pierre Yves Cardinal), is it a dance of seduction or an assertion of male dominance? Is the mother Agathe (Lise Roy) a lot cleverer than she lets on? Why Francis so protective of Agathe?
We are left in the dark on most of these things, but instead of confusing or muddying the film, they lend to its sense of overall potency; we feel as cut off and scared as Tom does, and in a thriller this is obviously an effective tactic. Whilst within the film this shows just how effective Dolan has become, in terms of his oeuvre it shows a commitment to development that ensures all of his films are fascinating.
There is also a central theme in all of Dolan’s work in the form of the often tense relationship between mothers and sons; even his second film, “Heartbeats”, ostensibly a Jules Et Jim style love triangle effort between a girl, a guy, and the shared sexually ambiguous object of desire Nicolas, takes a moment near the end to include a scene of Dolan’s character masturbating over the trousers of Nicolas being interrupted by Nicolas’ mother. It’s a weird, funny scene that highlights how Dolan is incapable of making a film without there being some sort of mother figure in it; and it’s thankful that scenes between mothers and sons are the kind that Dolan can write best, because in another film a scene like that might have crashed the whole thing.
It’s no surprise that Dolan’s most recent film, “Mommy”, was about what it was about; a young mother looking after her violent fifteen year-old son, after his institutionalization, with the interference of a young woman from across the street. It’s a brave, bold film, shot in a rare 1:1 aspect ratio that is less a cinematic experiment but more a statement on (once more) the psychological states of the characters. There is one instance where the screen opens up, and it does so right as the characters’ worlds open up (set to “Wonderwall”; it just about works). But for the rest of the film we are boxed in with these characters, framed centrally, each with their own peculiar form of tunnel-vision.
Could this also be a statement on motherhood itself; that it hems one in so particularly that it becomes hard for the mother to see anything else other than her immediate existence? Indeed, could it also be a statement on the general self-absorption of adolescents? Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is an ultimately likeable character, but fittingly enough he suffers from almost terminal tunnel-vision.
This calls into account Dolan’s general aesthetic and form. Some have accused him of a tendency towards melodrama, but for me Dolan simply makes films where the exteriors reflect the interiors; this has been plainly evident since his first film. Where the film takes to slow-motion and ultra-clear high-definition, it is because in that moment the characters feel that way, as if the world has slowed down the emotions are drawn out. It’s part of the central excitement of any given Dolan film; he tailors his style in each effort to the over-riding feelings of the characters.
This has many effects; firstly, it shows Dolan as a director capable of intense empathy, and one with a keen eye for the feelings of his characters. Often we, as audience members, ride the coat-tails of that feeling. Secondly, it does allow for sumptuously, endlessly beautiful films. If Dolan is interested in what the form of his films can tell us about the characters, then he makes sure that the forms of his films are, in general, unforgettable. Whether it’s the boxed-in “Mommy”, the pastiche/montage aesthetic of “I Killed”, the restrictive “Tom”, or the dreamy “Heartbeats”, each of his films is a jewel in the way Wes Anderson’s films are frequently a jewel; they are composed with a statistician’s touch, but from the heart.
This leaves “Laurence Anyways”, certainly Dolan’s boldest, bravest film, a near-three hour long odyssey of the eponymous Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) who has recently outed himself as a trans woman, and the effect that this has on the relationship with his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément). It completes what, retrospectively, looks suspiciously like a thematic trilogy ála Von Trier (all based around love), and it is the film where his tendency towards excess is most apparent. If it is the weakest of his works, it is not because it is ultimately a weak film, but because it is the film where Dolan seems to run with the (misguided) notion that he has to, for some reason, outdo himself. There are multitudes in this film, key characters are introduced at various points throughout, and his style is abundant (shot in 1:33 aspect ratio, and with plenty of “music video” moments).
It makes sense that “Tom” after this, for all its flourishes and ambiguity, seems positively restrained. This was maybe the time where Dolan over-reached himself ever so slightly. It’s a perfectly good film (in the same way that a weak Fellini trumps 90% of whatever else is on at that given time) but it lacks that continuous Dolan zest; as if it gets slightly bogged down by its own bloat. There is a very clear midway point to the film where the perspectives realign and the timeline moves forward; maybe this would have worked better as a double feature with a bit more material at either end?
Even this, in a way, suggests Dolan’s greatness. The fact that it is conceivably the best option for his worst film to have opened it up and put more in; for he is truly a director who inspires greed, who makes you want to drink and drink at his cinematic fountain.
In fact, of all the excellent directors currently working today, he seems to me to be the most potent auteur, who recalls the grandest of directors like Renoir, Truffaut, Varda, yes Fellini; even the invention of “Mommy” and the playing around with form recalled, in some way, the innovative spirit of Dziga Vertov.
Yet here’s the trick; despite recalling all of those masters, he remains himself, fully his own, accountable to nobody but himself. Every frame is recognisably his, and I hope his career is long and filled with the joy, the exultant wonder he has exhibited thus far. And I hope he inspires a new wave of young precocious talent to come along and mess things up; we need a new wave at this point, and I hope that Dolan is the gust of wind that catches the tide.
He certainly has it in him; there doesn’t seem to be anything he doesn’t.