There’s nothing unusual about a filmmaker launching his career with a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about troubled teenager. Francois Truffaut did it, most memorably, with his feature debut, 400 Blows. But what’s miraculous about Xavier Dolan’s feature debut, I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère)—which opens this week in English Canada—is that that he did it while he was still a teenager. Not only that, but this Quebec wunderkind and former child star wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film—after financing it with $100,000 of his own money before convincing others to pitch in. A fellow film critic at Now magazine, my pal Norm Wilner, has compared this feat to the old story of a dog walking on its hind legs. The achievement is so remarkable that whether or not he does it well becomes almost beside the point. Norm goes on to say that Dolan’s feature debut is messy and at times amateurish. I see what he means, up to a point, and now that Dolan has reached the ripe old age of 20, even he looks back on his award-winning movie as “flawed.”
But the naive passion of the filmmaking, like that of the self-absorbed character Dolan plays on screen, is what makes I Killed My Mother so engaging. There’s no shortage of slick, über-professional movies out there. To see an incandescent talent captured in all its raw, youthful vitality is rare. As is so often the case with precocious intelligence, it can seem wise beyond its years. Although I was often appalled by the protagonist’s narcissism, and wondered if the filmmaker shared it, I found I Killed My Mother to be a remarkably assured work, endowed with that preternatural maturity and confidence only the young possess, and which comes but once in an artist’s lifetime.
Dolan stars as Hubert, a gay teenager at war with his mother, a divorced lower-middle class suburban mom (Anne Dorval) who seems to be doing the best she can. Everything about her drives him crazy, from the way she eats to her kitschy taste in clothes and decor. Hubert finds solace with his dreamboat boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud), and his mother (Patricia Tulasne), who is so aggressively hip and liberal-minded the film’s portrayal of her becomes almost as cruel as that of mother in the title—which, by the way, refers to Hubert’s attempt to dodge a homework assignment by claiming his mother is dead. Despite Hubert’s relationship with Antonin, the gay romance is quite secondary in the story. Hubert’s most momentous relationships are with women—from the love/hate melodrama with his mother to a platonic, and vaguely inappropriate, friendship that he develops with his teacher (Suzanne Clément), who has a motherly crush on him. (There are so many mother figures it could be an Almodóvar movie.)
Hubert treats his mom so hideously that, that at times it’s cringe-worthy. And even though the film is ostensibly on his side, I found my heart going out to the mother more often than not. But Dolan eventually gives Dorval the best scene in the movie, a fabulous ranting monologue on the phone. And even when it’s hard to take, the drama’s mother-son dynamic feels utterly authentic, and by no means exclusive to a gay teenager.
I Killed My Mother is styled as cinema about cinema—Dolan wears his influences on his sleeve, from Jean-Luc Godard to Rimbaud. But this is ultimately a drama of flesh-and-blood relationships, not ideas. There’s a tradition of this in Quebec. Over the years, even the artiest filmmakers—Gilles Carle, Claude Jutra, Jean-Claude Lauzon, Bernard Emond, Denis Villeneuve—have shown they like to sink their teeth into genuine narrative; in English Canadian cinema, narrative is all too often an armature to support a “higher” conceptual agenda.
After making a sensational debut at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, where he won four awards, and going on to win a bunch more—including the Toronto Film Critics Association’s inaugural $5,000 Jay Scott Prize for emerging talent—Xavier Dolan has given himself a hard act to follow. But apparently his sophomore feature has already been shot. And this one doesn’t sound even semi-autobiographical: it’s the story of a transsexual. Meanwhile this charismatic young man, who looks impatient to be a movie star, says he wouldn’t mind a simple acting job.