Allow me to make one thing very clear about Quebecois director Xavier Dolan from the outset: he is an undeniably talented filmmaker. As much has been clear since his cinematic debut, I Killed My Mother, which he wrote (at the age of 16, no less), produced, directed, and starred in, being released in 2009 when Dolan was the tender age of 20. While far from a commercial success, a statement was made as Dolan earned considerable acclaim for his first project, particularly regarding its depth in spite of his young age, with many critics deeming him one of the most promising up-and-coming talents in Canadian cinema, with early flashes of an uncompromising auteur. However, with his sophomore effort, Heartbeats, it becomes quickly apparent that his unique style could become fundamentally problematic if left unchecked, and it has never been so apparent as with his more recent projects.
Of course, his later works cannot be critiqued without first appreciating the impressive mid-section of his already extensive filmography. While I was evidently unimpressed by 2010’s Heartbeats, which I described in my review as “artistic to a fault” (a recurring theme in his most flawed works), Dolan quickly bounced back with his dramatic epic Laurence Anyways in 2012. Centring on the titular Laurence and his transitioning from identifying as a man to a woman, Dolan’s third outing, which clocks in at almost 3 hours, could have succumbed to the same contrivances of its predecessor, but is instead a meditative analysis on the internal and external struggles of such fundamental shifts in one’s gender and identity politics. In ways, it was even ahead of its time, as Dolan, himself a gay man, has proven time and again that his finger is rarely off the pulse of the LGTBQ2S+ movement. It also helps that Laurence Anyways emphasises a more restrained Dolan, who rarely gives in to his most distracting creative flourishes in spite of the film’s length and proves he was maturing as a filmmaker.
Dolan continues this creative ascension with his next two films, the first being Tom at the Farm in 2013, which marks a bold shift into psychological thriller territory, yet Dolan by and large delivers a patient, tense picture that cleverly uses the filmmaker’s ongoing exploration of queer identity as a driving force for this very tension, all the while making pointed remarks on the subject. Only another year later, Dolan’s fifth production, Mommy, is released at the stunning age of 25 (mind you that’s a film for every 5 years of his life) and is arguably his strongest work to date. Mommy is the most concise marriage of style and substance from Dolan, as he chose to frame the vast majority of the film in 1:1 aspect ratio, but in a manner that perfectly complements both the thematic and narrative ambitions of the film, revisiting the concept of the mother-son relationship he had previously explored in I Killed My Mother. As such, many, myself included, would have expected such a balanced, nuanced approach to mark the next stage of the young filmmaker’s blossoming creative palette.
How wrong we were.
It is with the release of his next production, 2016’s It’s Only the End of the World, that we see Dolan revert to some old habits (and some new), noticeably prioritising artsy cinematography and dramatic bombast over substance and coherence. One thing that is practically guaranteed in any Dolan film, at least, is universally impressive performances from his cast, and here it is no different, particularly with the presence of actors such as Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux, and the late Gaspard Ulliel. Dolan’s aptitude for directing actors is indisputable, and even his worst productions are at least somewhat elevated by his understanding of the craft, being an actor himself, but it is not enough to save this film. The primary issue with It’s Only the End of the World is that, while it certainly has something to say, it gets lost in the constant bickering between characters who are not all that likeable, as Dolan confuses conflict with relatability to exhausting affect, meanwhile the claustrophobic cinematography only serves to shove it in your face. Despite this, there is an emotional weight to It’s Only the End of the World that often rises above the inconsistent character work, thankfully falling short of being fatally flawed, so to speak. If only the same could be said of 2018’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.
Dolan’s first English language feature, led by young Canadian talent Jacob Tremblay and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington, is a complete mess. It’s as if all of Dolan’s worst creative and narrative impulses converged into one confused, contrived, aimless production that only serves to accentuate its inherent shortcomings. Never has Dolan’s narrative and style been more disconnected, and it is likely that the filmmaker recognised the gaping issues in post-production, as the film went through extensive editing that, yet still made the film feel slapdash from one scene to the next. There was even an entire storyline involving Jessica Chastain cut from the final product. As in, Chastain doesn’t appear in the film at all. Yet, even if the Oscar-winning actress had been included in the final cut, it is near-impossible to imagine that her immense presence could have done anything to save the dramatic dumpster fire that is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which stands not as the contemplative artistic piece that Dolan had clearly hoped for, but a sad display of an auteur undone by his own overindulgence.
I was so disillusioned by Dolan’s trajectory at this stage of his career that I honestly have not yet come around to watching his latest release, 2019’s Matthias & Maxime. While it earned a much warmer reception than It’s Only the End of the World and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, and I do I try to avoid being swayed by ‘critical consensus’ on sites like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes one way or another, but when I read the latter’s note that “Matthias and [sic] Maxime enchants almost as much as it frustrates”, I knew I was out, at least for the time being.
Dolan himself has proven that there is a way to achieve his unique, auteurist ambitions without sacrificing substance for the style he craves to inject, which is what makes his more recent efforts’ glaring shortcomings so frustrating. However, with the upcoming release of the limited TV series The Night Logan Woke Up, perhaps there is hope yet that Dolan can make a turnaround with his first foray into the television medium.