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Xavier Dolan

by Samantha Craggs

It's been 10 years since Xavier Dolan, age 20, burst out of the gate at the Cannes Film Festival with his first ever movie, I Killed My Mother. It was a raw, imperfect effort. The deeply autobiographical narrative rambled at times. A plethora of shots framed the subject in the middle lower third of the screen, leaving space for blank white walls and reams of extraneous information. But it was a first-hand look at being a queer teenager fighting with his parents in the new millennium. For taste-makers at Cannes, it was more than enough. His movie showed in the Director's Fortnight, and Dolan, a former Québecois child actor who'd never even directed a short film, became the arthouse's youngest rock star. 

We've watched him learn the craft in two-hour intervals ever since. He works at a frantic clip, so he's made eight movies in 10 years. The now 30 year old filmmaker will premiere that eighth feature Matthias et Maxime at Cannes on May 22nd. Love or hate his offerings so far, one thing is guaranteed – this one will look nothing like I Killed My Mother. Let's do a ranking of his movies so far, after the jump... 


07. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018)
Oh, Xavier. Such a swing. Such a miss. In film, some galactic efforts make for galactic belly flops, and this one was...disjointed, to say the least.  Kit Harington plays John F. Donovan, the star of a WB-like show who's afraid the world will find out that he's gay. He has an ardent fan in a child named Rupert (Jacob Tremblay), who screams at the TV when a new episode comes on, and that's the only relatable moment in the film. 

The story is told in flashback from the point of view of adult Rupert, who wrote a book based on being Donovan's pen pal when he was a kid. Somehow, six-year-old Rupert started writing to Donovan without his mom knowing, and he kept that going for five years. (“Jesus,” I thought when I watched it. “Where would he even find a stamp?”) Too much of the film is implausible, and its two main strands don't connect well. At one point, adult Rupert even mansplains human rights violations to a war correspondent. 

The film had a roughly $30-million budget and a titanic cast – Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton. Dolan spent two years editing it, and one imagines a moment when he stood in a dark room, looked at the ceiling and screamed “f-ck!”  Maybe history will be kind to ...John F. Donovan. The French press has been. American critics, meanwhile, have given it 13% on Rotten Tomatoes.  

I attended its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. People around me cleared their throats a lot. Some vacated their $75 seats midway through. At the end, a total stranger turned to me and said, “It didn't land.” And it was true.

06 Laurence Anyways (2012)
Straight up: this film is long. Too long. Two and a half hours long, and although there's much to appreciate, it would be a lot more fun if it was 30 minutes shorter.

Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence, a transgender woman in a relationship with Fred (Suzanne Clément). Laurence reveals her gender identity, and tells Fred she wants to live as her true self. Fred stands by her at first, but their complicated relationship becomes more so as they adjust to their new dynamic.

This film is the height of Dolan's visual experimentation so far. Clothes fall from the sky. Water pours over a character as life rushes over her. These are bold efforts, and Clément's acting is incredible. But did I mention it's way too long?

05 I Killed My Mother (2009)
Dolan's debut radiates a frustration you can only feel when you're 16 and wrestling with your parents' irrational decisions, when you love them but don't like them and know the feeling's mutual. This insight feels useful, but I Killed My Mother works best when connected to Dolan's back story. In isolation, it's an average, meandering film, albeit pretty to look at (especially the paint scene). Mostly, though, it's worth watching in the context of it being a gifted teenage filmmaker unafraid to fail.

04 Tom at the Farm (2013)
This is the most unsettling film in Dolan's repertoire – a psychosexual thriller set on a Québec farm – and the least self referential of the lot. He cowrote it with Michel Marc Bouchard, and it's based on Bouchard's play. Dolan stars as Tom, a copy-editor whose boyfriend has just died. (We never find out how.) He heads out to the farm where the boyfriend grew up only to find the mother has no idea who he is. The older brother knows, and wants him to shut up, play along for the memorial and bugger off, in that order.  It gets odd from there. Calves are birthed. Tangos are danced. Tom develops Stockholm Syndrome, and we never know if the two men are going to have rough sex or kill each other. Or both.

You can see Dolan trying some things here – a different genre, a different setting, a writing partner, a helicopter shot. Anyone I've shared Tom at the Farm with has had a million questions afterward, questions I can't really answer, but it's a good film regardless.

Trivia: Dolan's dad, Manuel Tadros, has been in four of his films. In this one, there's an extended scene between the two, and it's the best scene in the film. Also, Bouchard's stories are a treat. Check out the 1996 LGBT film Lilies, if you can find it.

03 Heartbeats (2010) 
Dolan's second film, made when he was 21, is a good entry point for the non-art house crowd. It's a nice, linear little snack. It's one of the half of his features (including Matthias et Maxime) that star Dolan himself. He plays Francis, a cute hipster boy with a landline and an eye for vintage clothing. Monia Chokri plays his best friend, Marie, with the perfect mix of style and hesitation. They're both smart, interesting people with solid senses of self, but they don't fit into the world like everyone else, and they're still figuring out what to do with that.

They meet and fall for Nicolas (Niels Schneider), who has a floppy head of blond hair and a master's degree in flirtation. He keeps them both hanging on just enough. Francis catches on first, Marie second, and it culminates with a climax featuring Fever Ray, like all good climaxes do. It also contains one of at least three My Own Private Idaho visual references in Dolan's catalogue, and the reaction to Nicolas at the end is the most stellar blow-off in Canadian cinematic history.

Trivia: Chokri is premiering her own first film at Cannes this year.

02 It's Only the End of the World (2016)
This film created a canyon-sized divide at Cannes. The jury awarded Dolan the Grand Prix alongside Jean-Luc Godard. When the result was announced, journalists in the media room reportedly booed. 

It's really not worth booing! Gaspard Ulliel stars as a playwright who journeys back home to tell his family he's dying. He's been gone 12 years, though, and it's too long. No one there knows him anymore, and he's so distant he might as well be a traveling salesman. His little sister (Lea Seydoux) treats him like a celebrity. His brother (Vincent Cassel) wants to punch him in the face. He's never met his sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard), and she addresses him with the formal French pronoun “vous.”

There's a flurry of dialogue. Characters say eight words when one will do. The movie is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, who wrote it to be wordy. Dolan's stated goal was to keep that intact, and he succeeded.

The film has quiet moments too, and they invite meaningful questions. How big of a deal are our family issues, really? What moments will matter when we get to the end? The movie is claustrophobic, and yeah, it's grating at times, but those are intentional elements of complicated material. The ending is hushed and riveting, an example of playing the loud moments off the quiet ones. Give it a chance if you haven't yet.

01. Mommy (2014)
Ask any cinephile their favourite Dolan movie, and there's a 60% chance they'll say Mommy. Perennial Dolan muse Anne Dorval plays Die. Her teenage son Steve has ADHD and an attachment disorder. Steve is kicked out of an institution for setting fire to the cafeteria, and Steve and Die settle into precarious domesticity. It's not easy. Steve wants desperately to please his mom, but he has violent outbursts. It's hard to know how much comes from his ADHD and how much is learned, since Die has a rage all her own. A high school teacher from across the street brings some peace.

Every bit of acting is stellar. The characters could be plucked from any workplace or city bus. Dolan films often have self indulgent moments, and this one does too – the characters dance around the kitchen to a full Celine Dion song. But this is his most fully imagined and presented work of art. It has gripping emotional tension, and then there's that montage. Is there anyone who does a montage like Xavier Dolan?

Mommy won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and it deserved it.


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Reader Comments (15)

The best of his films is Laurence anyways. By a long margin. The story is just so strong.
It was so good, that even though the running time was longer than his average, I wouldn't mind for the film to be even longer!

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterKris

I second the motion that LAURENCE ANYWAYS is his best. (Maybe I will start a petition on for Nathaniel to change this post. Haha!)

And I also think IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD is too high. I found that one self-indulgent.

Thanks for the post, Samantha Craggs. (From Travis Cragg. :-) )

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

For me:
1. I Killed My Mother, which made me instantly love his voice
2. Tom at the Farm, unsettling and memorable
3. Mommy, a touch too indulgent but still very powerful
4. Heartbeats, which I enjoyed but had faded from memory
5. It' Only the End of the World - overly dramatic but still lovely
6. Laurence Anyways - I found the endless fighting frustrating, but it deserves a rewatch

Can't wait for what he gives us next. And really, the Adele video deserves one hell of a shout out too.

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

So far...

1. Laurence Anyways
2. Mommy
3. Tom at the Farm
4. I Killed My Mother
5. Heartbeats

May 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Fun post. Though i would put Heartbeats at #1 for sure for that pivotal party scene set to a song by The Knife alone:

but Mommy is a very close second. I can't complain or argue w/ anyone who puts that wonderful movie at the top of their rankings. Thank god i saw it in a theater which really opened up those few wide screen scenes...

here's hoping Dolan can reach those heights again

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSFOTroy

Laurence Anyways is a close second after Mommy. Just look at the scope of it - a sweeping period piece (yes, the period is late 80s/early 90s, but it's still a period piece), it never felt long or too long (unlike what you wrote) - and he was friggin' 23 when he made it. This is not the kind of film a 23-year old is supposed to make, and it is exceptional.

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

Mommy was my first and only experience with one of his films and I hated it.

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

For me
1. Laurence Anyways
2. Mommy
3. J'ai tué ma mère
4. Les amours imaginaires
5. Tom à la ferme
6. Juste la fin du monde
7. The Death and Life...

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFrenchToast

he has a lot of talent but he just hasnt brought it all together and made a great film yet; usually he makes bad films

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

Laurence Anyways is unsufferable

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Tom a la ferme is such a great movie. A little bit of Hitchcock and the movie can be interpret in many ways

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterManuel


None. Though he could get there some day.

Laurence Anyways

Heartbeats/Les Amours Imaginaires
I Killed My Mother

Tom at the Farm

I haven't seen the other two. Sorta surprised at the praise for Tom at the Farm. Glad to see the shout-out to Lilies, which I think is better than anything Dolan has done thus far.

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

My ranking:

1. Tom at the Farm
2. Heartbeats
3. Laurence Anyways
4. Mommy
5. I Killed My Mother
6. It's Only the End of the World

May 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

the three I love:


and usually in that order...

May 20, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Mommy is my favorite. And correction it was Mommy that shared the Jury prize with Godard.

May 20, 2019 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

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