Xavier Dolan: A Brief Retrospective

At only 25 years old, Xavier Dolan’s films of deep ’emotional intelligence’ have established him as a burgeoning talent on the international scene. MAY ZIADE takes a look at his cinematic work thus far.

‘Wunderkind’ is the key superlative trending amongst anyone who ever attempts to write about Xavier Dolan; having recently released his fifth feature film, the French-Canadian artist is already recognized as a talented director, writer and actor. At just 25 years old, his is a big part of why he has become such a sensation.

Dolan’s latest film, Mommy, received the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It explores the relationship between a mother, her mentally troubled son and their next-door neighbour with whom they develop a trifecta that introduces the closest thing to stability the three characters have experienced in a long time. The film is wonderfully cast, brilliantly directed, smartly edited and the writing is so close to perfect that it deserves to be singled out. Dolan writes complex characters that are equally as flawed as they are gifted; they are as real as human beings ever will be, and you will love them all.

Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in 'Mommy'
Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in ‘Mommy’

Going through all his films in chronological order, from I Killed My Mother (2009) to Mommy (2014), Dolan keeps on getting better. I Killed My Mother is the quintessential first feature: it gives signs of a very promising talent in writing and directing but is still filled with little quirks. Dolan has come a long way since and his improvement is well illustrated by the evolution from I Killed My Mother to Mommy. The parallel is an easy one to draw because of the similarities in both the plot and the cast. Both focus on the relationship between a mother and her son, and involve a third ‘outside’ figure. Anne Dorval plays the mother in both, just as Suzanne Clément holds the roles of a teacher and a neighbour who will develop a strong relationship with the son and have a great impact on his life (in the earliest film the character is played by Dolan himself, and in the latter by Antoine-Olivier Pilon).

In I Killed My Mother, the relevance of this outside-of-the-family-realm presence is questionable, mostly because the character lacks the development it deserves, a problem fixed in Mommy. Another, more intrinsic, flaw of the earlier film is that the mother figure, portrayed by Anne Dorval, is unfortunately openly demonised. Dolan is the first to admit that while writing his first film he was seeking revenge against his own mother, thus not presenting a fair recollection of her character. His clear-sighted attitude towards his motives has transpired through Mommy where he shows increasing confidence in writing fiction; he steers away from the ‘write what you know’ dogma, giving room for wonderful filmmaking and honest, reflexive writing.

Clairvoyance in human character is something that Dolan, as a screenwriter, has been consistently striving for. To quote Suzanne Clément and Anne Dorval, who both have been recurring cast members in his films, their director has made a habit of showing signs of deep ‘emotional intelligence’. Dolan’s films examine the themes of sexual orientation, motherhood, love and social outcasts. As his films grow in accuracy and wisdom, so too do his insights into the human psyche. His tales are increasingly anchored in very realistic social worlds where everyone is given the same genuine treatment. The poorest and the richest, the gay and the straight, the marginalised and the everyday are all given the same credibility.

Dolan is not done justice by all the people who call him ‘Wunderkind’. His talent is recognized almost as a transcendental entity, as something he does not deserve entirely. Yet Dolan is a model because he follows a basic, yet very often overlooked, rule: he learns from his own mistakes. He shows evidence of hard work and this feature should be recognized as the most important part of his talent, given his young age. He gives himself the space to learn what his strengths and weaknesses are and continuously challenges himself. Hell, I think that in that respect he even has a little something to teach Woody Allen.

CategoriesFilm May Ziadé