Mama’s Boy: brazenly bratty, 25-year-old filmmaker Xavier Dolan is Canada’s next great auteur
When the lineup for the 2014 Cannes film festival was announced last April, the Canadian media transformed into a patriotic hype machine. The reason? Three Canadian directors had films in competition: the Academy Award–nominated Atom Egoyan for his thriller The Captive, the body horror auteur David Cronenberg for Maps to the Stars and, sidling uncomfortably up the flank, the 25-year-old Quebecer Xavier Dolan for his family drama Mommy.
Yet when the curtain fell on the festival, it was Dolan who enjoyed the greatest fête. Mommy, his fifth film in as many years, took the Jury Prize (effectively a bronze medal). He split the honour with 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard, who received the prize for his 3-D sensory assault Goodbye to Language.
The recklessly talented Dolan is the most refreshing, impetuous and bratty voice in Canadian cinema. At Cannes, he cast an imposing shadow over the elder statesmen—Cronenberg and Egoyan, yes, but also Godard, master of the French new wave. Dolan wasn’t just getting called up from the kids’ table but kicking it over in the process. In September, following its successful premiere at TIFF, Mommy was named Canada’s submission for best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Dolan was born in Montreal to Geneviève Dolan, a college admissions officer, and Manuel Tadros, an Egyptian-Canadian actor known in French Canada for quirky TV character roles and voice-over work. They split when he was two, leaving Dolan in the care of his mom. He got his first major gig at age four in a Québécois TV movie called Miséricorde, and found steady success in television and commercials throughout his childhood. Before achieving critical stardom, his biggest claim to fame was as a teenage voice actor: he lent his pitchy adolescent squeak to Québécois dubs of South Park (as Stan) and the Harry Potter films (as Ron Weasley). At 17, Dolan dropped out of CEGEP to pursue filmmaking full-time.
Two years later, in 2009, he released his auspicious debut, I Killed My Mother. Dolan was only 19, and not just the movie’s director but also its producer, writer and star—he played the lead, a gay teen warring with his single mom. (Mother was semi-autobiographical, inspired by his own prickly relationship with Geneviève.) Like a CW drama version of a Tennessee Williams play, the film is comically audacious, as much a showcase for Dolan’s high-strung and shrieky acting as his cinematic experiments—a smorgasbord of manicured compositions, slow-motion riffs and first-person video diaries. Mother was a movie that called attention to itself—and its maker. It premiered at Cannes in 2009 to a much-publicized nine-minute standing ovation.
That’s the sort of attention the filmmaker relishes. Dolan has a tendency to stridently criticize anything people love. He hates the Beatles. He called Orson Welles a “late bloomer.” He even had the audacity to slam the universally revered Jean-Luc Godard. “He doesn’t touch me or inspire me,” Dolan said in a recent interview. Marc Cassivi, a cultural critic at La Presse, diagnosed Dolan’s brash personality as the antithesis of reserved Canadian humility.
Dolan is eyeing Hollywood—he recently cast Jessica Chastain and Susan Sarandon in his forthcoming English-language debut—but he also seems to enjoy being the biggest fish in the small pond of Canadian, and Québécois, cinema. His films are attuned to the emotional realities of French Canada. Mommy, a psychosexual sci-fi family drama, is suffused with this hyperlocal detail: the actors wear sequin-spangled denim and oversized polos, and speak in a densely accented Québécois slang, which demanded its own French subtitles when the movie screened at Cannes. This is a film whose central cast grooves in a dimly lit condo kitchen to Céline Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas.” “She’s our effin’ national treasure,” says Steve, the brooding teen lead, in a rare moment of joy.
In Mommy, Dolan strung together a series of inflamed scenes between Diane, a single mom, and Steve, her troubled son, whose teen angst is compounded by acute ADHD and some serious attachment disorders. Beyond its sci-fi wrinkle—the film is set in a parallel-universe Canada where parents can sign over troublesome teens to the state—the most impressive thing about Mommy is how convincingly, and tenderly, Dolan manages its roaring oscillations. One moment, Steve is attempting to dazzle his mother with a necklace. The next, he’s strangling her and pinning her against a wall, his dopey pout registering a kind of pathetic psychopathy. It’s a film ever at war with itself—powerfully intimate yet anxiously claustrophobic. What resounds throughout is Dolan’s sympathy, the way he makes it nearly impossible for viewers to condemn his characters, their motivations, and the quality of their love for one another.
Like other Québécois breakout filmmakers Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée, Dolan has a talent for high-flown emotion, but he reminds me more of the Winnipeg oddball Guy Maddin—they share a taste for playfulness, earnestness and seething erotic undercurrents. His visual style is just as operatic: the movie’s boxy, technicolour aesthetic looks a little like Instagram, but it more deliberately recalls the look of French-Canadian daytime soaps.
Since that standing ovation for I Killed My Mother at Cannes, Dolan’s youth and prodigiousness have worked against him: the “wunderkind” tag, so often bandied about by critics, feels like a way of relegating Dolan’s talent to the domain of adolescence. Yet his juvenile self-absorption is exactly what makes Dolan so great. His films are consistently fascinating because of his indulgences. He takes angry, insistent stances on Oedipal rage, Québécois inferiority complexes and entitled teen vanity. He mucks around with trippy aspect ratios and detours into music video fantasia. Every half-formed idea marks its maker’s youthful exuberance, the product of an artist still at the age when every notion seems not just important but the most important.
Maybe in 30 years Xavier Dolan will be different. His cinema will become calculating and intellectual, all those spiky adolescent emotions weathered by the lapping tides of respectability. Maybe he’ll give less combative interviews and pledge fealty to Saint Godard and learn to co-operate.
In the meantime, I’ll bend my ear to all the full-throated shouting and eagerly get swept up in the bracing pop sugar rush. Until then, I’ll groove in tandem with Mommy’s smirking Steve, happy to call Xavier Dolan an effin’ national treasure.