J’Ai Tue Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother)
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, François Arnaud, Suzanne Clément
By Alan Bacchus
If you’re remotely involved in Canadian film you would have to have been living under a rock not to be influenced by the hype associated with Xavier Dolan – the 19 year old wunderkind writer-director-actor who self financed his own feature film, got accepted into the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, won 3 major awards there and was subsequently heralded as a new voice in Canadian auteur cinema. That was almost one year ago. After a solid and very profitable theatrical run in Quebec, the film finally arrived in English Canada a couple weeks ago (presumably waiting to see if it got an Oscar nomination – which it didn’t).
And so I went into the theatre with all this baggage, and yet came out full of the same fresh zest and youthful cinematic inspiration which came out of Cannes. It’s a remarkable effort, not only for a 19-year-old, nor as independently produced debut feature, but a great piece of impressionistic auteur cinema.
Dolan plays a version of himself, a teenager high schooler, named Hubert, living with his single mom Chantale (Anne Dorval). It’s a tempestuous relationship to say the least, two bold and selfish personalities who claim they don’t understand the other. Every conversation is blocked by an invisible barrier of spite and ends with someone saying ‘fuck off’ (in English). Beneath these slurs is a deep and fundamental love between the two which we know is there, but needs a jackhammer to unearth.
Ironically the only stabile thing in Hubert's life is his confidence with his sexual orientation. His homosexual relationship with his boyfriend Augustin, providing a surrogate domestic lifestyle is desperately desires from his own home.
Things look up when Hubert takes the initiative to connect to his mother, surprising her one day by cooking dinner, doing laundry, and making polite conversation. But when his mother dismisses and ignores his actions, suddenly we realize it's more than just youthful angst, but a two-way street of miscommunication, anger and pain.
Dolan's screenplay cruises along without too many twists – an art house narrative but with a conscious respect for traditional cinematic storytelling. The film never wanders off course, and every action, even the most wild dream sequences and other visual embellishment advance the story.
For his age, Dolan is remarkably confident and consistent with his visual palette. He handicaps himself by almost exclusively using ‘two-shots’ for each scene - the most boring of all shots in the director’s shot list. Yet by keeping two people visible in frame Dolan maximizes the effect of the conflict. At all times we see Hubert spacially connected to the other characters, and in particular, his arguments with his mother feel organic, natural and not encumbered by cinematic artifice of editing.
At the same time his two-shots are as stylishly excessive as any first time filmmaker. Dolan’s compositions often put his characters in the corner of frames, or at the bottom of the screen, engulfing by negative space, or furniture or art work on the walls. His single shots are often anti-framed having his character looking against the natural direction of the frame. Dolan’s knows his cinema lore as well, centre framing characters, use slo-motion, shooting behind people’s heads, visual cues from great first features from Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson et al – all hallmarks of a director who wants to stand out.
However accomplished, there's no doubt "I Killed My Mother" feels very much like a first feature, but a confident and exciting new filmmaker with big ideas and an innate sense of cinematic storytelling.