The film business is a tough nut to crack for any director, with many of the most talented directors making their feature film debut in their thirties, or maybe even late twenties if they are lucky. But then you have the current reigning wunderkind Canadian cinema, Xavier Dolan, whose 2009 feature debut, I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère), was written solely by a sixteen-year-old Dolan, and then produced and directed by the filmmaker when he was nineteen/twenty. Talk about perspective!
Because of Dolan’s prolific work for such a young director (six films with a seventh on the way), he already had my attention before watching a single one of his films. As such, for the next few weeks I will be sequentially reviewing each of his films, naturally beginning with his debut, all the while observing the evolution of the director, who incredibly has yet to break into his thirties.
I Killed My Mother gives us a glimpse into the tense relationship between Hubert (Dolan) and his single mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). Hubert is a typically hormonal sixteen year-old who claims to have no love for his mother, bearing far more ill-will towards her than his absentee father. As the story plays out, we watch as tensions grow between Hubert and Chantale, affecting each of them in different ways.
The film’s outline may seem bare, but it is the only explanation required. Make no mistake, even in spite of his age, this is an admirably complex and personal film by Dolan.
What immediately drew my moment is Dolan’s intriguing camerawork and minimalistic editing (something I am admittedly a sucker for). While some might argue that the occasionally unconventional camera angles Dolan uses is illustrative of a very young artist being excessively stylistic, I whole-heartedly beg to differ. I think the film’s cinematography is one of its strongest aspects, already proving at the time that he was an up-and-coming director with a keen, gifted eye.
Similarly, the poetic passages used in the film to remind Hubert of the importance of one’s mother could be construed as attempts at some kind of pseudo-intellectualism, but it all feels intrinsically relevant to the film’s themes and Hubert’s own issues with his mother. The onscreen quotations help convey philosophies and social perceptions of the mother/son relationship, which captivatingly contradicts Hubert’s own conflicted feelings towards his mother.
The rights and wrongs in the relationship between Hubert and his mother fall into many grey areas, as Dolan has us simultaneously relate to Hubert as the primary character, and to Chantale as a parent, or more specifically, a mother. It does not always feel like there is a clear-cut side to take. This is unquestionably skilled screenwriting from Dolan, as it is no easy task to develop three-dimensional characters while leaving room for interpretation of the rights and wrongs. Dolan here reminds me of the immensely talented Sarah Polley, whose work displayed a highly perceptive understanding of human interaction at a similarly young age.
Regardless, this is still a film by a nineteen-year-old who, I will undoubtedly find, has learned a great deal since his debut. But his youth as a filmmaker in I Killed My Mother is most apparent in the sometimes frustratingly cyclical depiction of the relationship between Hubert and his mother. They argue, try to make up, and argue all over again. This does well for creating a better understanding of Hubert, his mother, and their strained relationship, but the rinse-repeat method gets tiresome, and stagnates the film’s pacing at times.
Whatever opinions others may hold about I Killed My Mother though, this is an undeniable achievement for such a young filmmaker. Xavier Dolan shows a graceful understanding for both the art of filmmaking and human relationships, so it is no wonder he was propelled to the international stage following the standing ovation he received at the film’s Cannes screening. Suffice to say, I already look forward to reviewing Dolan’s subsequent film, Heartbeats (Les Amours imaginaires) for next week’
Read Alex’s take on the movie here.