Xavier Dolan was just nineteen years old when he wrote, directed and produced his first feature length film, J’ai tué ma mère. The film was also included in the 2009 Cannes film festival, winning three awards. His debut film is not without its problems, but in this case, many of the film’s faults and inconsistencies, only lend to its “fresh” feeling. Dolan emerges as a youthful and raw voice in cinema, one that has not quite settled down, and seems to be bursting with unrestrained emotion and creativity. The presence of handheld camera work, poetic musical interludes, and moments of fantasy born out of a unique film and cultural background, create a collage-like portrait of a tumultuous adolescence and family life.
The film’s weakest point is probably the dialogue, though I think in international releases and subtitles some of that may be lost in translation. Moments of incredible poignancy are often matched with facile language clichés that can be only overlooked mostly due to the strength of the performance and intensity of emotion. It is a fault nonetheless, one that will hopefully be polished out in Dolan’s follow-ups. In many ways, it reminds me of Autumn Sonata, which I watched earlier tonight, and which covers a very similar ground. Both films are extremely melodramatic, even cloyingly sentimental… it is only that, the sentiment is often rooted in strong anger or hate, and one without wars or great action, so that it is easy to “overlook”. Especially since both deal with apparently egomaniacal mother figures, the line between soap opera and insight becomes tricky. In a way, it is easy to point fingers at parents, and to engage in simple Freudian cause and effects within these kinds of narratives. Both films seem to mostly overcome these trappings, but never completely. In both cases I think that style and emotion overrules intellectual insight, something that I don’t necessarily have a problem with, but the fact that I notice also irks me somewhat. In the end, both films opt for incomplete resolutions marked by temporary acceptance of human imperfection. Bergman’s resolution seems to ache, though, with the incorrigible pain of several lifetimes, while Dolan’s protagonist seems healed, albeit temporarily, from that anguish.
As an apparently autobiographical film, it is difficult to imagine what Dolan’s mother must have thought of his portrait of her; to say it is unflattering is an understatement. She embodies a familiar kitsch variety of modern woman, who holds herself up as being a pinnacle of grace and style, despite the fact her lifestyle is a materialistic bizzaro world of the high class world she is so desperately trying to embody. She is crass, short-tempered and self-centered. Somehow though, she never falls into the realm of caricature. Much if this is due to Anne Dorval’s incredible performance, one that rivals most of the very best of last year. There is also an understanding on Hubert’s (Dolan) part of his mother’ confusion, inexperience and inability to cope with a life she never wanted or expected. It isn’t necessarily that being a mother was “accidental”, but expected of her, and being the kind of person she is… she does what she must in order to feel acceptance. This does not soften either his interpretation of her great faults as a mother, or create a strong empathically feeling from his character towards hers.
Hubert has two means of escape from the empirical control his mother has over him, his art and his relationship with Antonin. The film handles Hubert’s homosexuality with a wonderful understatedness, and though it contributes to the rift between mother and son, it avoids most of the familiar clichés of a close-minded parent dealing with the revelation of their child’s “unexpected” sexual preferences. Dolan creates a great deal of comfort and eroticism in the scenes between Antonin and Hubert, which is especially remarkable considering his age. There is nothing cheap or fake about the intimacy felt by the two characters, and in a realm where most films made by, for or about teens tends to take the emotion out of sex, this was a wonderful surprise. Even so, their relationship is not without complications, something that only adds to the complex nature of the interpersonal relations in the film.
Though not without its faults, J’ai tué ma mere is an incredible feature that does not feel like a debut. So much of the film feels like an adventure; the work of a young and excited artist trying new things out, and paying homage to great talents that inspired him. At just 21 years old, we can only hope that this is the beginning of a long and fruitful career for Dolan, and that he will continue to shock and awe his audiences with his filmmaking. His new film, Les amours imaginaires (2010), premieres at the Cannes film festival next week.