Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 13, 2010 5:43 pm 
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'Maman': can't live with her, can't live without her

In this debut feature film in Canadian French, Hubert (Xavier Dolan, who wrote, directed, produced and stars) is a gay Montreal teenager who, as the title J'ai tué ma mère hyperbolically informs us, is not the least bit fond of his female parent. The male one lives in another part of town and is seen only briefly, and later. Hubert doesn't actually resort to violence against Chantale (Anne Dorval), as might have happened in an early Ozon film; he's just verbally cruel to her; unfortunately for the emotional dimension of the piece, she's never very deeply stung by his many barbs, though she can return critical salvos aplenty when called upon. And so the mutual abuse goes on and on and on, chiefly at the dinner table, where she often serves him his favorite foods, or in the car, where she chauffeurs him to and from school.

There is a car scene in Cédric Klapisch's L'Auberge espagnole, where Romain Duris explodes with a nasty epithet, cutting off a tiresome speech by his overly understanding old hippie mom (Martine Demaret). Just one explosion. That's all it takes to show all a son's pent-up annoyance at his well-meaning but burdensome mother. What makes it so effective is that it's so unexpected. Duris' character, who happens to be called Xavier, is always the good and polite and dutiful young man. Dolan is not so efficient by a long sight. Hubert and his mother have an ongoing verbal battle that never goes anywhere, and the louder they yell at each other, the less it matters to us. What we can say is that Dolan gives his mother a voice. She looms very large in the story. Hubert really, really wants to get away from her even though he kind of loves her. The difference between him and Klapisch's Xavier is that Xavier is ready to go out on his own, and Hubert isn't: he needs his mom terribly -- there's the rub. He has to have her around to define himself by vociferously enunciating the way he despises everything about her. The truth is she's not at all a bad mom; she's just a sounding board for Hubert's teen angst.

Chantale isn't developed in great depth, but even less developed is Hubert's boyfriend, a schoolmate called Antonin (François Arnaud) -- an adolescent homage to Antonin Artaud (there's one to Arthur Rimbaud too). Yes, the two boys kiss a bit, and get naked together after an embarrassingly filmed scene in which they splash-paint Antonin's mom's office space à la Jackson Pollack and, of course, get paint all over each other. Antonin's liberal mom Hèlene (Patricia Tulasne), cool with the boys' gayness, provides a contrast to Chantale, and is also inadvertently the way Chantale finds out her son likes boys.

Hubert's insolence eventually leads to a meeting between his mom and dad (Pierre Chagnon) and a decision to send the boy off to a boarding school. At this point things get rather confusing. Very quickly Hubert is at the school, with a new, naughty dope-smoking boyfriend -- but then he's back home again pouring out his love to Chantale while on speed, and then he's apparently run away from the school. The headmaster calls Chantale to tell her, and implies, to her intense annoyance, that it's all her fault. The sequence is too fast all of a sudden. There is also a relationship with one of Hubert's earlier teachers, Julie (Suzanne Clement), that is a bit over-the-top, and badly defined considering Hubert's consciously gay. And that fact, given all the yelling between mother and son and the latter's outspokenness, is something you'd think would have come out earlier; presumably he finds her too clueless to tell. The chronological uncertainties and unclear motivations are various. And yet, due to the universality of filial conflicts and the vivacity of the proceedings, I Killed My Mother has crowd-pleasing potential.

It would be a bit churlish to damn this first feature for its unoriginal storyline and annoying mother-son shout-fests and other faults. There's a modicum of life in every scene of I Killed My Mother, and, considering the source, it's precocious and brave. Xavier Dolan was nineteen or so when he made it and seventeen when he wrote the screenplay. Let's cut the kid some slack. If he keeps at it, this could be like the autobiographical first novel so many writers throw away; and in future as his maturity grows, Dolan may repudiate this youthful effort. It just happens that the Montreal film industry and Dolon's supporters, maybe because he's gay and poutily cute, because he's been in pictures and ads since he was a kid and he's got connections, or because he's got chutzpah, it got made into a movie, with Red One images digitally transferred to 35mm. With alternating bright color scheme for the boyfriend's liberal household and a dull one for home; self-indulgent black-and-white monologues supposedly shot in the bathroom with a cheap video camera that look much too handsome for that, and some color exteriors that are also handsome, if derivative, the film has a look, or looks, that go beyond the ordinary, even if they don't quite jell. There are borrowings from Truffaut, Wong Kar-wai, and lots of others that herald a giddy love of movies. Dolan is good at playing himself (not everybody is), and the camera likes him. If he continues to make movies -- and with the encouragement he's gotten, which includes several awards at Cannes, he's unlikely not to -- Xavier Dolan may turn into a good filmmaker.

J'ai tué ma mère was chosen to be shown as the closing night film of the New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and screened in early April at the Walter Reade Theater and MoMA. The film opened in France July 15, 2009 and has been shown in over 20 festivals.


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