For many foreign language films, making your way to the United States is a bit harder than it looks. Just as young prodigy Xavier Dolan.
With one film already here and readily available (the ever brilliant Heartbeats) and one easily importable from our neighbors to the north (the upcoming 2013 release Laurence Anyways), Dolan’s first feature has long been one of the most intriguing foreign films that frankly, we haven’t had the chance to see. Until now.
Kino Lorber has released the film in theaters almost four years after its debut on the Croisette during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and while it’s been one of the more talked about debuts in quite some time, it’s hard to believe that this film does actually live up to every ounce of hype.
Seemingly Dolan’s most persona and auto-biographical film, the feature stars Dolan as a young student living with his mother in suburban Montreal. A divorcee, Chantale is a seemingly distant mother, with the mother-son duo having a rough go of it when we first meet them. Dealing with more than just a seemingly antagonistic mother, Hubert must deal with his budding romantic relationship with the alluring Antonin and the repercussions of lying to a teacher about his mother actually being dead. A deeply personal look at youthful angst and isolation, this may be an admitted “first film,” but if this picture does one thing, it proves that Dolan is as assured in his own aesthetic and voice as any filmmaker around.
Barely 20 years of age when the film was made, Dolan’s hand is all over this picture. As intimate as anything he’s made since, I Killed My Mother feels aesthetically and intellectually as the exact starting point a filmmaker who would go on to make a film like Heartbeats would have started at. Featuring every patented Dolan style quirk ranging from the specific use of music to the use of over the shoulder slow motion sequences, Dolan gets gorgeous photography from Stephanie Anne Weber-Biron (who would go on to shoot Dolan’s Heartbeats) that blends natural lighting and a colorful palette to create a world entirely Dolan’s. Not quite as verbose visually as his later works, Dolan’s debut feels both aesthetically experimental for such a young budding auteur, as well as enticingly intimate making for an extremely distinct blend of visceral and emotional.
Dolan also gives a rather solid performance. Playing ostensibly himself at the time, Dolan’s ability to jump from loving and tender to completely enraged and blindly frustrated is startling and telling. This is an ability that every young person has at that age, and it hits home for those who are just now past that age. There are also deeply moving interchanges between he and his mother, played fantastically by Anne Dorval, that are as true and affecting as anything Dolan has written since. Dorval plays the mother figure with a sense of melancholy and yet unwavering love that adds great depth to this relationship and the film’s themes. Toss in solid turns from actors who would return to Dolan’s films like Suzanne Clement and Niels Schneider, and you have a superb collection of performances under the watchful eye of a director far beyond his years.
However, the film isn’t without flaw. Clocking in at 100 minutes in length, the film’s pacing is a tad off, and the stylistic flourishes sometimes take away from moments that should be more moving than they are visually impressive. Also, the film doesn’t get much deeper than surface level with regards to the deep melancholy that is youth. The film’s lead is so troubled, dealing with both a mother who he can’t see eye to eye with and his own sexual orientation, that it seems slightly surface level. There are moments of insight (particularly one interchange following a drug fueled night out between he and his mother) but it doesn’t hit deep enough.
Overall, I Killed My Mother is a startling debut for a filmmaker who is far beyond his years. Startlingly moving both aesthetically and emotionally, the film is a visual gem of a motion picture, and while it doesn’t dig quite deep enough into its characters, there are moments of clarity so affecting that this is a must see for anyone looking to see where one of today’s most interesting young voices got his start. Far more than just a cinematic curio, I Killed My Mother is a great coming of age film from a director coming of age himself, behind the camera.