I Killed My Mother (2009)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan 

IKilledMyMotherCoverFrom the bawdy world of Dazed and Confused to the pseudo-innocence of  Peggy Sue Got Married, there’s a common feel to high-school movies. The characters cruise around in their cars and live in a world of their own. Adults are often present and influential, but there is never any doubt that the central universe is that of the adolescents.

Then-debuting-auteur Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, is instantly seductive for a number of reasons. For one, in true arthouse fashion, it finds beauty in the mundane, swinging by school and house walls in its scenes, and accenting colorful objects in its stills. It also employs the ever enjoyable tropes of its protagonist,Hubert (Dolan), smoking and philosophizing in black and white.

The film’s chief appeal, however, is its effective framing of what it means to be an adolescent. The typical, free-running, high school movie protagonist is depicted as existing in the world as an adult, even as they still have the mind of a child. Hubert, by contrast, has quite the reflective mind, but, like many sixteen year-olds, he has nothing resembling an adult’s freedom. 

The film’s title refers to a subtler event that takes place early in its runtime. Overall, the story explores Hubert’s relationship to his mother (Anne Dorval). The relationship is obviously not a pleasant one, but its true nature is never quite made clear. Hubert is prone to bursts of yelling, whereas his mother is always unsettlingly calm. While audiences are never forced to doubt Hubert’s account of events (that his mother is unavailable, inconsistent and manipulative), we are encouraged not to trust them either. 

This ambiguity means that I Killed My Mother captures a nuance about parent-child relationships that many films often miss. As a smart, almost adult, Hubert is on the one hand, of course capable of intellectually and morally criticizing his mother’s methods. But on the other hand, the parent-child relationship is necessarily one of trust in the elder. Despite Hubert’s threats that he will cut off ties with his mother, viewers will understand that this cannot be true. 

While much of the conflict between Hubert and his mother is rooted either in specific, small instances or in their backstory, Hubert’s semi-closeted gayness is also an important dynamic in the relationship. Is Hubert’s mother homophobic, and to what degree? I Killed My Mother intentionally underexplores the question, because what matters is not whether the answer to question is yes, but simply that the spectre of the issue is alive in Hubert’s angsty conscience. 

I Killed My Mother is great for what it is not. It presents its titular teenager as a teenager, not an adult. It presents him as being able to be critical of his parents, without giving into the Hollywood trope of presenting children (much younger than Hubert) of being in a position to effectively lecture their parents on obvious moral shortcomings. But I Killed My Mother is also great for what it is: for its beautiful shots be they of a greasy spoon with a “special aura”, or paint-drenched romance; and its plot structure, which seems to come to resolution once and then finds satisfying drama again. Hubert’s relationship with his mother is hopefully not one shared by many, but I suspect the little bit of relatable truth in it will prove a present surprise for viewers of all kinds. 

Matthias & Maxime (2019)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan

Matthias_&_MaximeI had had very little exposure to Xavier Dolan when I went to see The Death and Life of John F. Donovan earlier this year. I sensed, nonetheless, that something about that film didn’t seem quite right: it felt more Brit-Hollywood than indie-auterial. Matthias and Maxime, by contrast, very much met my expectations, at least in the film’s opening scenes.

The first thing that’s apparent in Matthias & Maxime is Dolan’s voice. The audience is thrown right into the chaos of a group of young men hanging out a cottage. The dialogue is fast paced to the point that it is hard to process, but it nonetheless impresses via its realism and touches of humor. The film’s opening, however, peaks in quality when its purpose becomes apparent. Two members of the friend group, Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Max (Dolan) are brought to the forefront and asked to kiss in a friend’s (Camille Feltonn) presumably low-prospect, but ambitiously envisioned short film. The scene serves as a hilarious homager to Jean-Luc Godard. Matt and Max are placed against a white background and dressed in solid red and blue shirts, and are then instructed to participate in an “impressionist-expressionist” film that speaks to the gender-sexuality-fluidity of the day.

Alas, this great scene does not hint at anything to come. While the film continues to have funny moments, including a bit with a young, over-the-top corporate lawyer (Beach Rats’s Harris Dickinson), and chaotic moments (a second party near the movie’s end), the bulk of the film is about loneliness, particularly Matt’s realization of how deeply he longs for Max. In a way, this choice was fairly resonant with me. I often find myself embarrassed by the fact that I’ll go to a single party, and not come back with any stories that would be notable to anyone but myself, yet feel nostalgic for and talk about the party for weeks if not months and years to come. Life is a series of highs and lows, and Dolan’s film captures that. Matt and Max’s lives are rarely as magical as they were that day at the cottage. Unfortunately, Dolan’s commitment to showing his characters’ day to day mundanity comes at the expense of viewers who might readily sacrifice this realism to see the magic continue.

Another important trait of Dolan’s dreary is realism is his decision to present Matt and Max’s stories as non-parallel. Prior to the film’s final scenes, we do not see Max brood for Matt in the way his friend does for him. Instead we watch Max stress out as he prepares to spend two years in Australia, while caring for a mother recovering from addiction (Anne Dorval). From a viewer’s standpoint the disjunct between Matt and Max’s stories is frustrating, especially when the Max’s-mother-subplot never really resolves itself. From a thematic standpoint, however, Dolan’s choice is very understandable. It is bad enough to know that Matt will long be burdened by the end of his magical moment(s) with Max: it’s worse to know that for Max this moment may have been less consequential

Dolan’s conceptualization of loneliness is resonant: it’s one that spoke strongly to me even though I’ve never struggled with repressed romantic urges in a way comparable to the film’s protagonists. What is frustrating about the film, however, is that its most entertaining moments are only tangentially related to its most thematically resonant ones. Dolan’s realism can be too real. I was particularly bothered by the film’s closing shot which shows Max being cheered up by the arrival of some supporting characters whose identities were never quite explained. Thematically, this moment makes sense: one way we can deal with day to day tragedies is by finding solace in other elements of our deeply complex lives. But as movies in the 8 ½ tradition have sought to explain, sometimes real life is not perfectly translatable to the big screen. Sometimes, it takes a crudely written stock character (ie the lawyer), to save a skillfully written movie.