I Killed My Mother, Too
by John Villeneuve
Full disclosure. Being a highly functional, life-long sufferer of bipolarity (hence the appearance of the conjunction “too” in the title), I may be the wrong person to be reviewing Canadian director, Xavier Dolan’s semi-autobiographical debut film, J’ai tu√© ma m√®re (I Killed My Mother), a movie with psychic damage as its over-riding theme. My bias, I’m afraid, may plausibly lead to overly exaggerated praise. But, then again, maybe not. Over identification as hindrance or insight aside, what is certain is that a young man of nineteen has directed, produced, written and stars in one of the most astonishing, accomplished and stylistically cogent films this year; a film that many veteran directors would envy.
Playing Hubert Minel, a manic depressive, gay, sixteen year old high-school student living in Montreal, Quebec, Dolan is in equal measures adolescent cipher and aimless psychological anarchist. Because of a compassionate literature teacher (Suzanne Cl√©ment), Hubert is able to indulge his intellectual curiosity in poetry, painting and matters of the heart. However, when not occupied by something other than himself, Hubert is a verbal, unhinged monster with rat-a-tat delivery. His mother, Chantale, (Anne Dorval), a single woman who is fractured in her own way, is the vessel in which he places all of his existential rage and teenage angst. But necessity has mandated that she adapt. Thus, the vitriol that he spews at her is often met with seething restraint and resignation (barriers she has undoubtedly erected after being raised by a mother with severe mental illness).
Dolan and Dorval. Sounds like a team that has been around forever, and considering the chemistry between the two one could be forgiven for thinking that they are indeed mother and son. Every nuance of familial complexity is apparent, from toxic enmity to unspoken allegiance. Together, they make the antagonists in Ordinary People seem positively polite. Moreover, Dolan captures the essence and extremity of a mind on the precipice of madness, while Dorval, as the mother, quietly embodies and internalizes the echoed quandary that she finds herself in, once again. Nevertheless, she is like the rock that truly does not break. At least not until her abilities as a parent are questioned by an ignorant and chauvinistic principle. It is during this scene that we get a sense that mental illness is perhaps a generational, family affair.
Apart from being an intuitive dramatist with uncommon power, Dolan, clearly, is influenced by Jackson Pollack and Wong Kar Wai. The paintings that Hubert creates in the film are direct, exuberant, knock-offs of Pollack’s images, but Dolan’s direction, editing and acting are also like the controlled chaos that Pollack exhibited visually. Combined with this kineticism is a sense of the smooth rhythms and sensuous cinematography so effectively used in Wong Kar Wai’s film, In the Mood for Love. In fact, Dolan’s choice of music feels serendipitously familiar. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that it is likely that Dolan is an aficionado (and frequent watcher) of the Chinese autuers’ masterpiece. And though, at times, Dolan lacks in directorial efficiency, he always manages to hold this thematically unwieldy beast together with modest dashes of flare, agonizing confession and psychological heft.
However, there is a caveat. After viewing J’ai tu√© ma m√®re I was elated, and, yet, alarmed and fearful for its young creator. There is no doubt that Dolan is enormously talented; however, Quebec seems to produce ill-fated directors. In one camp there are those who have yet to live up to their initial promise (Denis Villeneuve, Maelstr√∂m; Jean-Marc Vall√©e, C.R.A.Z.Y.; Lynne Stopkewich, Kissed; Fran√ßois Girard, Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould). And on the other hand, there are the directors who, after producing a masterpiece, tragically died young (Francis Mankiewicz, Les bons d√©barras; Claude Jutra, Mon oncle Antoine; Jean Claude Lauzon, L√©olo). There are few stories of native Quebecors who have had careers that included more than one financially successful and critically acclaimed movie. Directors like Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions) and Jason Reitman (Juno) are an exception. And even these last two far-famed filmmakers cannot boast about having won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival with their debut offering. Dolan can. It is this overwhelming success that fills me with trepidation. Will the pressure to surpass himself prove more harmful than good? I truly hope not. But, for now, I will put my anxiety and neurosis away, pop a Lithium/Zoloft cocktail, and anticipate a repeat of this auspicious beginning, over and over again. An Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film, though unlikely, would certainly help. Not to mention that should his movie be nominated, it would make Xavier Dolan the youngest producer, director, writer, actor to be noticed since Orson Welles. Heady stuff, indeed.