Oh, where to start Xavier Dolan. Often seen as a “love them or hate them” type of filmmaker, there is no doubt that he makes films that are deeply personal. Born in Quebec and making his first feature film at a young age of 20, Dolan, who more often appears in his own films, regularly permeates them with his own life experiences. These include the upbringing of a young gay man and having a flimsy relationship with his mother, two themes that are regularly explored through his filmography.
The way Dolan chooses to tell his stories is incredibly unique, for better or worse. Many praise the emotionally loud quality of his film, whether it is through exaggerated melodrama bordering on the camp, or the very … unique needle drops he spreads throughout each film. For others, it may simply be a little too much. What’s almost undeniable is that Dolan has a serious talent as a filmmaker, and is an incredibly productive one by creating eight feature films before they turn 30. Not many can say they have achieved that.
Last month, Dolan announced that he has finished filming his very first TV series, The night Logan woke up. It will certainly be interesting to see how his unique cinematic voice is translated into television, and while we wait for it to come out, let’s take a look back at the films he has released so far, ranked from worst to best.
8. It’s Only the End of the World (2016)
Winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival 2016, It’s just the end of the world plays out a bit like a TV movie. There is no denying that the ensemble crew consists of all the brilliant actors (Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, and Leah Seydoux), but they do not necessarily get the best material to work with. Based on a play by Jean Luc Lagarce, the film follows a playwright (Ulliel) who comes to visit his family, with whom he has a strained relationship.
High on melodrama and low on emotional impact, It’s the end of the world consists mainly of tense arguments between characters culminating in shouting and lack of resolution. The characters themselves are not particularly interesting, and for the most part, the film does not quite grow out of the source’s stagnation, and often feels like a filmed stage play. On top of that, the film contains what is perhaps the most jarringly bad needle drop in any Dolan film … perhaps any film ever. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
7. John F. Donovan’s Death and Life (2018)
Named by critics as the “worst” film of its career, Dolan’s English-language debut, John F. Donovan’s Death and Life, is perhaps a little too harshly rated and underestimated. It’s certainly a narratively ambitious film, about a young man named Rupert, who is interviewed by a journalist after writing a book about his childhood correspondence with the late actor John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington). Mainly told through flashbacks, we see Rupert grow up as a child mixed with moments from Donovan’s troubled life.
John F. Donovan’s Death and Life is an emotionally exhausting story, bound by the fact that it a little too often resorts to melodrama and narrative clichés. And as is the case with many-a-Dolan films, there are quite a few music choices that ran from disgusting to downright cringy (the film is booking in its credit sequences with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony”). ”By The Verve. Sigh.) Despite its shortcomings, the film is clearly a very personal story for Dolan, and the emotion that manages to shine through saves it from becoming a complete disaster.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
An epic depiction of the life of a transgender woman named Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), Laurence at least is a film in which Dolan’s penchant for camp and melodrama works, mainly because he takes it to such an extreme and unapologetic level that it becomes part of the film’s identity. Seen in hallucinatory sequences like when Laurence’s boyfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) arrives at a party (on a conveyor belt), or when Laurence and Fred stroll through an empty street while a barrage of clothing rains down on them like confetti; the film uses colorful and sparkling expressionism to visually convey the film’s loud emotions.
And boy, is the emotion of the movie penetrating. Clément’s powerful performance (for which she won an award at Cannes) is especially incredible in a scene where she gets all her frustrations aired out and almost loses her mind after a waitress comes up with a kind remark to Laurence. What would normally be errors in a Dolan movie is turned into strengths in Laurence at least, even though the film drags out a little too long and reaches almost the three-hour mark. Regardless, Laurence at least sees Dolan as a young 20-year-old already showing clear command over his craft and cinematic voice.
5. Empty on the farm (2013)
Described as “Hitchcockian” upon release, Empty on the farm is Dolan’s break on the suspense genre. Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the film stars Dolan as the titular Tom, who travels to his late lover’s farm to pay tribute to his funeral. A psychological cat and mouse game begins to arise between Tom and his lover’s brother, Francis (Cardinal Pierre-Yves) when he decides to stay on the farm. The result is a tense exploration of repressed sexual desire and masculinity.
The comparisons to Hitchcock are probably a bit haphazard and do not do justice to the unique way in which Dolan cinematically extracts suspense and suspense. Although it does not completely surpass the stagnation of its source material, Empty on the farm sees Dolan retire and allows subtlety to sneak into the film’s characters and performances. The word “subtlety” and Xavier Dolan are usually never used in the same sentence, but this movie is proof that when Dolan calls back, something magical happens.
4. Heartbeat (2010)
Dolan’s second feature, Heartbeat, is a fierce sensual story of lust and unrequited longing. In the film, Dolan stars as Francis, who along with his best friend Marie (Monia Chokri), fights for the love of Nicolas (Niels Schneider), their object of infatuation. Without a doubt to take the influence of the king of sensual cinema Wong Kar-wai, Heartbeat goes all-in with his style, using slow motion and vibrant neon lighting to illustrate the main characters’ emotions. The result is a visually captivating film that humorously but effectively captures the emotions of being a young and horny 20s.
However, the film is not without its narrative kinks. Scattered throughout the film are talking-head segments of young men and women being interviewed about their love lives. These scenes are not really much other than the playing time of the film and could easily have been cut out without anything being lost. That being said, Dolan’s youthful abundance as a new and young voice in the arthouse cinema is nothing short of contagious; mistakes and all, Heartbeat is a highlight of Dolan’s career.
3. Matthias & Maxime (2019)
Dolan’s latest feature film, Matthias and Maxime, plays out almost like a greatest-hits album, in the sense that its narrative is packed with tried and tested Dolan-themed elements from previous films: unhappy love, lust for homosexuals, problems with mother, all set to a shower of cheesy needles . . It does not necessarily capture a single element perfectly, but it does highlight Dolan’s development as a filmmaker and provides a bittersweet portrait of a young man on his way into adulthood. Dolan turned 30 the year this film came out, and it’s not hard to see that it’s a very personal story for him to tell.
The film stars Dolan as Max, a young man who develops romantic feelings for Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), his best friend since childhood. This central love story is set against other narrative threads, such as Max’s complicated relationship with his mother (Anne Dorval) and tensions in Matt and Max’s group of friends. While the film’s emotional impact is somewhat dulled by its juggling of these various threads, Matthias and Maxime manages in an engaging and creative way to reveal different facets of the same Dolan tropes, even though they were made better in other films.
2. I Killed My Mother (2010)
Dolan’s debut, which he made as a 20-year-old, I killed my mother is an immature film by an immature filmmaker. And that is exactly what makes it so powerful. Visually and narratively, Polish, along with being bombastically dramatic, lacks Dolan’s passion as a young filmmaker, telling a very personal story that he had recently lived through is more than obvious. As a result, the film is an intimate cinematic juggernaut, filled with all the awkward quirks and furious emotions that lie in being a person approaching young adulthood.
The semi-autobiographical story follows Hubert (played by Dolan himself) as a young man struggling to live with his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval, a perennial mother in most Dolan films). Their relationship becomes even more strained when Chantale discovers that Hubert is gay and has a boyfriend. Feels almost like a modern adaptation of Francois Truffaut‘s The 400 strokes, I killed my mother deserves a place in the pantheon of essential coming-of-age films, made even more special by the fact that it was created by someone who had actually just come of age, already more than ready to tell their story.
1. Mommy (2014)
mother, without a doubt, is Xavier Dolan’s magnum opus. A strikingly intimate character-driven drama with powerful performances from its three main actors (Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clément), the film takes a dive into explosive emotional territory. However, the film’s emotional extremes never end up feeling like campy melodrama, because of how compelling and multidimensional the characters are. Dorval plays a mother who struggles to take care of her behaviorally unhealthy teenage son (Pilon). After forming a friendship with their neighbor (Clément), the three become almost like a family unit, taking care of each other through the harsh circumstances in which they find themselves.
Dolan is no stranger to playing with image formats, but in mother, the skewed use of the frame becomes crucial for visually depicting the narrative. Recorded primarily in a 1: 1 ratio, the film depicts, in a claustrophobic style, the situation of its protagonists, who experience transcendent moments of release when the frame momentarily opens. A thematic extreme tour de force in the same spirit as Dancing in the dark, mother is a film that at its finale dares you to have dry eyes. It not only consolidated Dolan as a masterful filmmaker, but it also remains his greatest cinematic achievement.
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