Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An Unfortunate Kinship

J'ai Tué Ma Mère (Xavier Dolan, 2009)
*** (A Must-See)

J'ai Tué Ma Mère is the first feature of actor-writer-director-coproducer Xavier Dolan-Tadros who completed the project at the age of nineteen years old. This is a thinly veiled autobiographic film where French-speaking Xavier Dolan plays Hubert, an on-screen alter ego, who is a queer Montréal high school adolescent who gets sent off to a boarding school without his consensus.

The conflict in the film arises between Hubert and his Quebecois mother Chantal (Anne Dorval, who looks surprisingly like Shirley MacLaine) and what makes the story so moving is Hubert’s incapability to understand that no matter how badly his mother treats him that it is done out of unconditional love. No matter how tacky is her dress or how safari is her taste or how bland is her cooking. Chantal is irritated by Hubert’s dependency and rejection and easily looses her temper. Her husband left both of them at young age. What increases Hubert’s sense of dismay towards his mother is his jealousy towards his boyfriend Antonin mom who leads an exciting life with young lovers, take-out, and who commissions Hubert to paint her office. What is so contradictory of Hubert’s, and Dolan’s, matricidal urges is that he uses these intense emotions as a source of creativity. In the film, one of his painting’s is entitled “The Son”, interlaced throughout the film are his b/w personal monologues of his yearning to communicate about his love/hate relationship with his mother, and he also writes a story named J'ai Tué Ma Mère.

The closest relationship Hubert seems to have is with his schoolteacher Julie. For a classroom assignment he lies to her stating that his mother is dead and later she picks him up after his mother chases him at school, and later he chooses to stay with her when he runs away. Julie and Hubert similarly have had poor relationships with their parents and they had close relationships with their grandparents. As well they both express a pervading wanderlust. Julie’s comforting of Hubert epitomizes the tenderness of their platonic friendship.

J'ai Tué Ma Mère is similar to Francois Truffaut’s directorial debut Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) - a film that Xavier included in his personal top ten film list - which is the story of a child Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his matriarchal issues who decides to run away from the detainee center he is put into and the film ends with a freeze-frame of him on a beach. Xavier transcends any similarities as the films concluding return to his childhood beach house seems fresh and unpredictable. It is also part of the Quebecois tradition of returning to nature and to rural traditions - like Gilles Carles’s La Vraie Nature de Bernadette (1972). J'ai Tué Ma Mère mixes between the lowbrow and highbrow with references to Jean Cocteau, Marquis de Sade, Jackson Pollack, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Some criticisms of J’ai Tué Ma Mère include the narrowness of its scope, as it is limited to individuals’ feelings that are void of politics and social realities. There are only slight suggestions of poverty, as outside a Blockbuster are two homeless men rifling amongst the trash – for creative representations of the Montreal socially assisted poor see the work of Donigan Cumming - and homophobia as Hubert once gets beaten. Dolan grew up as a child actor, had been in TV series, commercials, acted in Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) and has just completed Les Amours Imaginaire (2010). The world of the actor-director tends to verge on sublime narcissism as the surroundings are seen negatively and it is the protagonist who is the victim. Dolan's smarmy wink’s to the audience eventually gets annoying as he implies his own cleverness in the ways in which he looks at his mother with self-evident disgust and insults her for the most superficial reasons, like the way she eats a bagel and then has cream cheese stuck on the corner of her mouth.

Mark Peranson’s editor’s note in CinemaScope issue 39 writes “Québec’s wunderkind Dolan whose incredibly overrated Quinzaine debut strikes me as a case of mass hysteria” and later in the same magazine Jason Anderson contradictorily writes “should there be more who are as bold and brazen as Dolan”, Atom Egoyan personally expressed admiration for the film, and in the magazine 24 Images Issue 146 Marie-Claude Loiselle writes that Dolan film stands out from his contemporaries because he creates a language of his own that fits his personality, that at times J'ai Tué Ma Mère is border lining disequilibrium, and that hopefully with maturation Dolan films will increase in mastery hopefully without loosing his singularity and to not try to please everyone. Loiselle includes Dolan amongst other contemporary French-Canadian film chroniclers, or the “Nouvelle Vague Québécoise”, that includes Simon Galiero, Denis Côté, Rafaël Ouellet, Robin Aubert, Micheline Lanctôt, Sophie Deraspe, Bernard Émond, Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu.

J'ai Tué Ma Mère is similar to Ryan Arnold’s Skidlove as the two 2009 actor-director first-features both reflect the period and present particular youthful experiences of early adulthood and the conflicts between identity and role confusion, intimacy and isolation. Both features are partly co-produced which enables them to be full-length features of home movies material. As such they represent an expansive personal creative expression that is rarely seen is the privatively financed Canadian film industry. The films are painfully personal recognitions of deep feelings of anger, fear, and melancholy. In Skidlove, Ryan's character reaches out to others whether it is to his girlfriend Jaymee or to his friends, people are framed together. In J'ai Tué Ma Mère there are isolating close-ups always distancing Hubert from others. In both films the protagonist present a form of alternative lifestyles that includes smoking pot and painting. In Skidlove, Ryan is a heterosexual and deals with contemporary relationships once in the working world and his solace come from friends and girlfriend. In J'ai Tué Ma Mère, Hubert is 16 and wants to move out. Hubert has an intense Oedipus complex shown threw a fall orange-maple-leaf dream sequence where Hubert chases his mother who is dressed in a wedding gown. Through a Langian dream analysis, which emphasizes that dreams bring out underdeveloped aspect of the psyche, it reveals that Hubert complex desire to be closer to his mother.

The two films together present a diptych of English and French-speaking Canadian cinema of the 2010s as did the 1964 films by Don Owen's Toronto based Nobody Waved Goodbye, and Montrealer Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat Dans Le Sac did for their period. Stylistically Xavier Dolan is closer to someone like the expressive Arnaud Desplechin while Ryan Arnold seems more like the evovative Takashi Miike, though they present a sensibility that is rooted in a local cultural heritage. Ryan Arnold’s Skidlove has not attained the same successes as J'ai Tué Ma Mère that won three prizes at the Director’s Fortnight at the 2009 Cannes but it is a must-see and Skidlove will be having its Toronto premiere in May 2010 at The Royal Cinema.-David Davidson

(Bytowne Cinema, 324 Rideau Street, 19/03 - 25/03)

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