It’s perhaps old hat by now to say that Xavier Dolan has established himself as one of Canada’s foremost auteurs ever since his auspicious debut, I Killed My Mother, at the tender age of 20, but it still bears repeating.
Although he is, first and foremost, a writer and director, Dolan frequently acts in his own features, and has even branched out into further thespianism in recent years with starring roles in Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased and Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale in 2018. In 2019, Dolan played a brief but significant role in It Chapter 2, the sequel to the highest grossing horror film of all time, It Chapter 1. Within the sphere of acting, Dolan has never been flying higher.
What a cruel twist of irony it is, then, that Dolan’s writing and directing is what suffered in 2019.
The filmmaker’s most noteworthy failure of 2019, and perhaps of his young career, is the star-studded The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which also happened to be his first English-language feature. Dolan has never been a box office magnet, opting for his own brand of dramatic flourish that can admittedly frustrate on occasion, but bears an admirable artistic integrity, nonetheless. With his first crack at the English-speaking market, however, the cast alone, which includes the likes of Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, hints at thinly veiled commercial intention, especially in comparison to his lesser focus on star power in past films. It’s worth noting, to his credit, that Dolan totally edited Jessica Chastain out of the film as he felt the inclusion of her character ultimately damaged the cohesiveness of the finished product.
Despite this, the film failed to win over critics, who described it as “a barely coherent mess” and a “work of stunning technique eclipsed by its increasingly jaw-dropping solipsism.” Perhaps most tellingly, Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com lamented that the “film falls victim to his [Dolan’s] worst tendencies.” Dolan can certainly be overindulgent, and while I feel this tendency is most apparent in Heartbeats, where excessive style proves detrimental to the substance of its story, I would not have characterised it as a mess. Nevertheless, his flourishes hinted at the potential for such a film if he didn’t keep some of his more carelessly extravagant impulses in check, and it seems that The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is that very film.
Being the prolific filmmaker that he is (Dolan, who is 30, has thus far written and directed 8 films), The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was not his only feature to see theatrical release in 2019.
Matthias & Maxime is something of a rapid return to form for Dolan, with the consensus being that he showcases an almost uncharacteristic level of restraint in his execution this time around. Yet on a more characteristic note, its reception was divided by the same elements that viewers have come to either love or hate about Dolan’s work. Even So, Mathias & Maxime earned a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual Canada Top Ten list, which is no small victory for the filmmaker, particularly after stumbling so dramatically with his other 2019 release.
The work of Xavier Dolan is certainly not for everyone, undeniable as his talent is. If the recent backlash to Oscar winner Tom Hooper’s Cats is any indication, even the mightiest of filmmakers can falter. What’s important is how you respond, and despite the tumultuousness of Dolan’s 2019, his acting career has never looked better, and he was able to convincingly bounce back from what is likely the greatest misstep of his career. So, in the spirit of starting this new decade on a positive note, here’s hoping that 2020 brings further prosperity to Dolan’s already numerous accomplishments.
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