Enjoying its US premiere at the AFI Fest, fresh from acclaim at Cannes and adulation in Toronto, J’ai tué ma mère is the debut feature from 20 year-old Quebecois Xavier Dolan, writer, director and star.
16 year-old Hubert Minel has in some ways the archetypal push-pull (mostly push) teenage relationship with his (single) mother, but it’s ramped up to a near-hysterical degree. Everything she does annoys him, she listens to a stupid radio station, she eats wrong, and if he’s selfish and childish it’s because she raised him poorly. Sometimes car-rides will descend into shouting matches, but sometimes she’ll weather Hubert’s indignation, calmly resigned. And it’s not all him; his mother can lose her temper too, invading his school class or petulantly spoiling an evening on which he has actually made an effort to be nice.
But they have their more tender moments as well, and Hubert’s confession that he is incapable of loving his mother but incapable also of not loving her reveals the crux of the matter; one of the film’s greatest achievements is in rendering this paradox perfectly believable, and in creating such an exaggerated relationship that nevertheless plays as perfectly normal for both protagonists. Perhaps because, by all accounts, Dolan’s relationship with his own mother is no less fraught.
Much credit, therefore, to screen mother Anne Dorval, who is marvelous, funny and flawed, and more than holds her own against Dolan’s nakedly committed performance of self. Her role climaxes with a hilarious, applause-inducing telephone rant at the headmaster of the boarding school from which Hubert has fled, giving vent to years of the pent-up frustrations of difficult single-motherhood. Dorval is also the focus of the film’s other funniest scene, when she’s told unwittingly of her son’s homosexuality. Hubert’s boyfriend has little to do but provide contrast through his playful relationship with his light-hearted mother, and accompany Hubert in a terrific Quebecois punk-scored drip-painting-and-sex montage; similarly perfunctory is the foxy (female) teacher who takes Hubert in for a few days, but she does represent the only unconditionally supportive adult presence.
Mother aside, however, everyone’s bound to get sidelined because it’s Dolan’s movie through and through. Animated, thin-skinned, with pouting, expressive lips and a mop of curly hair over his right eye, he has the magnetic inward/outward charisma of an 80s indie pop star (and it’s really annoying me I can’t think of which one in particular). He’s no less expressive behind the camera, sprinkling the film with stylistic touches including brief moments in Hubert’s – his mother as Mary, weeping blood; a large window smashing in slo-mo; a borderline-successful music video-esque interlude with autumnal woods and wedding dress – and many of the scenes are introduced by a short, swift montage of objects, about to appear in the background; most effective of all however are the short monochrome close-up monologues that intersperse the main narrative (and fold back into it in the end) in which Hubert philosophically picks at the problem of his relationship with his mother.
Less completely successful, however, is the eccentric framing; characters are frequently placed as though just dipping into or slipping out of the corner or bottom of the frame which is jarring in dialogue, with heads pushed over to the “wrong” side of the screen (the lack of fundamental connection unnecessarily emphasised), but elsewhere does more often than not make for some striking compositions. All told it is a remarkable achievement for Dolan all round – invaluably assisted by Dorval – with writing and direction of complete assurance, and a tour de force central performance. But it is such a nakedly personal film that one wonders what he will/can do next.
Watch the trailer.