Quebecois director Xavier Dolan returns to Cannes
It’s been a full decade since Xavier Dolan’s first feature, I Killed My Mother, premiered at Cannes when the director was merely nineteen years old, and five since his Mommy infamously shared the Jury Prize with the 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. In the intervening years between Mommy and his latest feature, Matthias & Maxime, the critical enthusiasm has worn off. The onslaught of praise heaped upon Dolan from the get-go appears to have been steeped in goodwill and optimism; his early films may be clumsy, immature and corny, but they were the work of an artist-in-development, an eager young cineaste still refining his style. With Mommy, Cannes virtually appointed Dolan the next big thing in modern film, his jury prize a symbolic act of passing the torch from one generation of art cinema to the next.
In the year 2019, the arrival of a new Dolan film is more likely to inspire shrugs and groans than genuine enthusiasm. Part of this shift in attitude may be due to over-exposure (the incredibly prolific Dolan has crafted an astonishing eight films in ten years), and part of it may be down to the filmmaker’s nauseating ego (he once publicly invited a Hollywood Reporter critic who wrote a tepid review of Tom at the Farm to “kiss [my] narcissistic ass,” and, after witnessing It’s Only the End of the World receive the first largely negative reception of his career, declared that Cannes was descending into “a culture of hatred”), but the primary reason is simply Dolan’s lack of progression as an artist.
The more immature aspects of Dolan’s style — the pop music cues, the slow motion, the shoe-horned in cinephiliac references, the overwrought melodrama, the obvious self-infatuation — have not dissipated with time, but only grown more intense. Whereas we could once write off his over-indulgences as the missteps of an enthusiastic novice, it’s seeming increasingly unlikely that Dolan will ever grow out of his juvenilia phase. The minor developments in artistic maturity exhibited in the first stage of his career stalled around the time of Mommy, and now each Dolan movie registers as merely another iteration of the same slim set of thematic concerns and stylistic affectations.
Matthias & Maxime will do nothing to counteract the claim that Dolan is just treading water by this point.
Matthias & Maxime will do nothing to counteract the claim that Dolan is just treading water by this point. It’s another soap opera steeped in adolescent angst and inexplicable 90s nostalgia, built around a preening lead performance. This time, Dolan stars as Maxime, an actor in his late twenties who embarks on a retreat to a luxurious Québécois lakeside chalet with a gaggle of friends. Maxime is planning a semi-permanent move to Melbourne in a few months, a decision which puts a strain on his relationship with his oldest pal, Matthias (Gabriel D’Almedia Freitas). As part of a student film produced by the younger sister of a mutual acquaintance, Maxime is talked into making out with Matthias on camera. The experience revives old feelings; Maxime brings up a kiss they shared in high school, which Matthias denies — possibly due to his selective memory, and possibly due to his desire to protect the humdrum suburban life he’s settled into, complete with doting wife Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay) and the kind of vague, stifling office job that usually symbolizes the mundanity of the adult world in Xavier Dolan movies.
However, the two friends have clearly been suppressing their attraction to one another for years. The staged kiss leads to the resurgence of these old feelings, and makes for some very Dolan-style screechy melodrama. Sarah’s discovery of the kiss throws her and Matthias’ marriage into turmoil, soon encouraging him to distance himself from Maxime; the pressure creates even more tension on the fraught relationship between Maxime and his mother, Manon (Anne Dorval), a drug addict who verbally and physically abuses him.
The film is peppered with the sort of kitsch touches that have become part-and-parcel of Dolan’s style: Maxime has a large teardrop-shaped scar on his cheek which hammers home his brooding despondency, there is a ridiculous Britney Spears needle drop which begs for the viewer to applaud it for its lack of irony, and virtually none of the technology on screen seems to have evolved beyond the year 2000. This is one of Dolan’s more insidious traits; the impulse to coat his features in signifiers of tacky low-culture is clearly part of an attempt to evoke a grand lineage of queer cinema, but Dolan strips the camp aesthetic of any sense of danger. The subversive edge associated with camp is dialed down in favour of an uncritical acceptance of a certain brand of prestige European art cinema; Dolan is far too concerned with maintaining the appearance of good taste to genuinely channel the spirit of the subversive films he fetishizes.
Aside from these occasional cartoonish notes, Dolan’s aesthetic language is entirely pedestrian, capturing crowded interiors in the inexpressive point-and-shoot style of reality television, favouring three-quarter close-ups and darting whip pans, while relying too heavily on musical cues to provide the emotional lifting in the most substantial moments. Although Dolan keeps his camera locked in close to his actors at all times, he still lacks the ability to aestheticize emotional states, or to convey the effective emotional experiences of his live-wire characters. Most damningly, the relationship between Maxime and Matthias which serve as the film’s core never feels fully developed. The reasons why the pair have never acted on their romantic feelings are never properly articulated — the theme of homophobia, either externally imposed or internalized, isn’t addressed in the film in any substantial way.
Dolan has never shown much interest in tying the personal struggles of his characters to wider social or political currents; his only real attempt at societal critique so far is the quick stab at the mental health industry in Mommy, which is so vague and divorced from reality as to be totally toothless. Here too Dolan’s solipsism neuters the dramatic impact of his film; instead of interrogating the systems which foster heteronormative behaviour (an approach which may have lent the plight of his characters some pathos), he chooses to focus myopically on his characters’ shared quarter-life crises: the low-key anxiety of approaching adult responsibility, the choice between a youthful, bohemian lifestyle and one of buttoned-down conformity, the realization that your wildest friends are settling down, and a bunch of other bourgeois non-issues which feel more suited to an episode of Friends than a film in competition.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no hint of chemistry or sensuality between the two performers that would help to sell the contrived premise; Dolan instead relies on endless, flat shots of the two gazing longingly at each other in an attempt to convey their feelings. He remains a surface-level filmmaker, unable to convey the inner lives of his characters unless they’re being stated explicitly through screaming matches. For a filmmaker who prides himself on his skills as a classical storyteller and his ability to provide sincere, unfettered emotional resonance, this inability to establish realistic on-screen relationships is disconcerting, to say the least. Unable to convincingly communicate a sense of shared history or raise the stakes in traditional fashion, Dolan sticks to shrill, simplistic scenes which pit each character against each other in a series of static fights. When every scene is a climax, the emotional highs lose all sense of urgency, which makes for a pretty damn tiring viewing experience.
The fact that these same complaints could essentially be lobbied against any one of his earliest films points to Dolan’s remarkable lack of progression as an artist over the past decade — and considering his flippant disregard for constructive criticism, it doesn’t seem that he plans to mature any time soon. The appeal of Dolan’s filmmaking at the beginning of his career was due in large part to its awkward, over-earnest quality, the impression that his art was being pulled wholesale from the notebook of a moody teen who had yet to reign himself in and organize his priorities. Now, the youth has dissipated and the immaturity remains; unfortunately for Dolan, there comes a point when childishness ceases to seem endearing.