Dolan Directs: Adele – Hello (2015)

If you’ve been reading the past posts in this series, you’ll know how happy I am to be able to report that there is tea in china cups! It may seem like this is becoming something of an obsession for me, but now that I’ve noticed it, I need to see tea in china cups from Xavier Dolan every time.

You know, I’m not an Adele fan, and so I had a much better time watching this with the audio off. It also means that I paid more attention to the visuals, particularly at the times when Adele wasn’t on screen but was still bellowing singing.

As with the music video for Indochine’s College Boy, this too has been shot in black & white, providing some beautiful images under the eye of cinematographer André Turpin. Turpin has not only worked on previous Dolan output (College Boy, Mommy, Tom à la ferme, Juste la fin du monde), he also did the work on Denis Villeneuve’s beautiful Incendies. I felt less of a story or message in this video than the previous music short, and I wonder if it’s because the song is just too bland for Dolan to really get his teeth into?

Sound on or sound off? Over to you.

 

Dolan Directs: Mommy (2014)

“A woman doesn’t wake up one morning not loving her son.”

When I first saw this film on its release, I remember saying that although I liked it and was glad I’d seen it, it was very shouty and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see it again.

Well that was my instant reaction to the film, but reflecting on it later on drew me to the conclusion that I would definitely watch it again, and it ended up being my second best film of that year.

Revisiting the mother/son dynamic, Xavier Dolan casts Antoine Olivier Pilon (previously seen in the music video for College Boy) as Steve, a teenager with ADHD who has just been excluded from the institution in which he was staying and has been returned home to his widowed mother (Anne Dorval). His condition and her lack of work lead to very difficult situations at home, until a neighbour (Suzanne Clément) intervenes and becomes a balance between the two. She is struggling herself with a speech disorder which is preventing her from continuing her career as a teacher. We’re not exactly sure why she is suffering, but we get hints which are never confirmed.

Perhaps the most striking element of the movie is the use of aspect ratio. The majority of the film screens in 1:1 aspect ration, meaning that the screen image is square. This has the effect of being extremely intimate and also claustrophobic when focussing on the characters. Dolan uses this to great advantage when illustrating an unusual period of joy and happiness in the lives of the three, with a real sense of breaking free as the image widens. This lasts for precisely 3 minutes, until reality bites and the world begins to close in again. There’s also another, quite extraordinary, heartbreaking scene towards the end which truly shows the depth of love and hope that a mother holds for her son.

André Turpin again does the cinematography, and apart from the aspect ratio, the other obvious thing is that the colour palette is predominantly yellow. I haven’t yet been able to work out what the yellow is supposed to mean, but it is prevalent. As is the sense of smell. Characters often are seen smelling fabric, food or fruit, or commenting on how nicely other people smell. I think smell is the sense most closely connected with memory, and reference is made to how Steve’s behaviour only became challenging after his father died – it’s as if each character is attempting to get back to a time before that, when things weren’t so bad.

Anne Dorval gives an outstanding performance as Mommy Diane – taking everything life throws at her and retaining a sliver of hope throughout. Suzanne Clément is enthralling as the neighbour who finds purpose again in helping the mother and son across the road. And Antoine Olivier Pilon is an absolute force of nature as Steve.

It’s possibly Dolan’s most mature film to date, and one in which he officially cements Céline Dion as “a national treasure” of Canada.

And for those keeping track – tea in a china cup was sighted!

Dolan Directs: Tom à la ferme / Tom at the Farm (2013)

Aujourd’hui c’est comme une partie de moi qui meurt et puis je n’arrive pas à pleurer.

Maintenant ce qu’il nous reste à faire sans toi c’est te remplacer.

Today a part of me has died and I can’t cry.

Now all I can do without you is replace you.

 

This is Xavier Dolan’s fourth feature, and the first to be based on material that Dolan hadn’t already created (in this case a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, with whom Dolan collaborated on the screenplay).

It’s a departure for the director in other ways too. There is only one returning cast member from previous films (his father, Manuel Tadros) and I didn’t see the tea being poured – although it can be heard (see other posts for details!).

While it’s perhaps a little unfair to say that Dolan has given himself the opportunity to explore genre film-making with this psychological almost-thriller, the tone of this is altogether different from his previous work. The mind-games at play between the characters are not frivolous affairs of the heart, but more sinister and twisted, with the menace of real violence as an undercurrent.

Dolan plays city boy Tom, who turns up at his (now deceased) boyfriend Guillaume’s family home to attend the funeral. He discovers that the mother has no knowledge of his existence and doesn’t realise that her son was gay, and that there is also a brother (Francis) who immediately coerces Tom into not revealing this information and playing along with the charade. Once the funeral is over, and we expect Tom to return to the city, things change.

Francis is a violent, isolated character who appears to have some issues of his own regarding his sexuality, and he exerts pressure on Tom to become an additional pair of hands on the farm. Tom acquiesces quite easily (too easily?), submitting to Francis’ heavy-handedness as if he feels he needs to be punished for Guillaume’s death. He also sees something of Guillaume in the brother, and there is a distinct connection between the two. Is Tom perhaps showing signs of Stockholm syndrome? He appears to be trapped but doesn’t realise it – he thinks he’s in control.

The colour palette is muted, in definite contrast to Les amours imaginaires and Laurence Anyways, with Tom’s hair exactly matching the colour of the tall corn in the fields.

The score is very Hitchcockian in places, which underlines the psychological thriller aspect of the film. I actually think Dolan could have gone even further in exploring this aspect, and that although we need the arrival of Sarah to help us as the audience to realise what’s been going on, she broke the tension between Tom and Francis at a point where we could have done with more.

The music choices are again perfect, with the opening sequence set to a French-language version of Windmills of my Mind one of the highlights. And one of my favourite scenes echoes Wong-Kar Wai’s Happy Together, as Tom and Francis tango together in an empty shed to the sounds of the Gotan Project. Both are below for your delectation and delight.

Dolan Directs: Indochine – College Boy (2013)

After using a song by Indochine in his film Les amours imaginaires, Xavier Dolan turns his hand to directing a video specifically for one of their songs – College Boy.

It caused something of a stir, because it was deemed to be too violent to be shown to anyone under the age of 18, and comes with a warning on YouTube (see below).

Filmed in black and white, it comments on bullying in schools and how people are complicit by turning a blind eye. It also has something to say about the use of guns.

The victim of the crimes is played by Antoine Olivier Pilon who we will see later in one of Dolan’s features.

Here’s the full video – it does get a bit bloody, so be warned.

Dolan Directs: Laurence Anyways (2012)

“I’m stealing someone’s life.”

“Whose life?”

“The life of the woman I was born to be.”

Laurence Anyways charts a ten-year period in the life of Laurence, a high school teacher, as he finally reaches a point where he admits to himself and the love of his life that he is actually a woman and wants to transition.

And although the title indicates that it’s all about Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), it’s equally, and perhaps even more, about Fred (Suzanne Clément), his highly strung girlfriend who undergoes her own identity crisis as she struggles to understand and support Laurence through his transition. Fred is presumably short for Frédérique, and Laurence is a name which can be for both males and females in French, so the ambiguity is present even in the title.

In fact, once Laurence has made the decision to live as a woman, we only see glimpses of his journey. He does experience difficulties, but director Xavier Dolan instead looks at how Fred’s life is turned upside down too, and how she loses herself as Laurence grows into himself/herself. Can their love for each other survive this change?

This is the first Dolan-directed film in which he doesn’t act; you know it’s ‘un film de Dolan’, but you do miss his on-screen presence.

At 2 hours and 48 minutes, this is over an hour longer than either of Dolan’s previous two features – and it does feel as though it could have been edited down a little. Yet the story and the characters are so absorbing and well-played that it is easy to stick with them.

You can always spend the time looking out for the Dolan connections or signature pieces. Excellent music choices (Fade to Grey a particular highlight for me), slow motion walking, and a host of familiar faces from previous Dolan films – Anne Dorval, Monia Chokri, Magalie Lépine Blondeau and Anne-Élisabeth Bossé from Les amours imaginaires for example. Papa Dolan (Manuel Tadros) also reprises his role from J’ai tué ma mère as ‘landlord showing prospective tenants around an apartment’, with almost identical lines.

And my favourite trademark – tea being poured into china cups!

Dolan Directs: Les amours imaginaires / Heartbeats (2010)

Il n’y a de vrai au monde que de déraisonner d’amour

The only truth is love beyond reason

This is one of those times when the English title Heartbeats, not being a direct translation of the original French title Les amours imaginaires, does the film a disservice; the French title is a much better fit for what is to come.

Xavier Dolan’s second film contains a number of visual touchstones immediately recognisable from his first film J’ai tué ma mère. There are ‘confessionals’ to camera, slow motion walking to beautiful 60s music, tea being poured in to a delicate china cup, a woodland wrestle. There are also cast crossovers – Niels Schneider plays the love interest, Anne Dorval the mother, and Dolan himself returns as one third of the potential love triangle.

The tone, however, is very different. Dealing with an egotistical manipulator who plays with the emotions of those who immediately adore him, this has much more of a light touch and in fact I could almost see sections being populated by Doris Day and Rock Hudson on occasion.

This is partly due to the design and costuming. Marie (Monia Chokri) is a lover of vintage, and dresses in Audrey Hepburn-style attire much of the time. There are also shades of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love. When Marie and GBF Francis (Dolan) meet Nicolas (Schneider), they both become infatuated with him, to the detriment of their own friendship. It flatters Nicolas’ ego to have them both chase after him, and he leads them both along, causing jealousy and bitterness, which he appears to find amusing.

The audience can see what’s going on, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand why they are even bothering with such a self-centred individual – but then, as the interspersed camera confessionals underline, we’ve all been there. We’ve all spent far too long yearning for someone or some relationship that is never going to work, done stupid things in order to impress, gone out of our way to ‘accidentally’ bump into the object of our desire. We’ve been strung along, discarded, and left to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts.

By the end, Dolan shows us that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and that – painful though it is – we’d probably rather have the ups and downs of the relationship game than not feel those emotions at all. At least when we’re in our twenties.

Dolan Directs: J’ai tué ma mère / I Killed my Mother (2009)

“What would you do if I died today?”

“I’d die tomorrow.”

Research before re-watching J’ai tué ma mère brings up the staggering information that Dolan was 16 when he wrote the screenplay and 19 when he directed it. He also acknowledges that the story is partly autobiographical, and it fills me with admiration that someone so young is able to express such complexity in relationships – and then transfer it to screen so succinctly.

The film opens with a black & white confessional (which appears a couple of times later in the film too) in which Dolan’s character (Hubert) talks about his difficult relationship with his mother. The image then snaps into slow motion colour with accompanying music which, in combination, immediately brings to mind the work of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love – full of emotion unexpressed.

Our first view of mother and son together shows him watching her eat – rolling his eyes in disgust as she crams a cream cheese bagel into her mouth. Shortly afterwards we see them arguing as she drives him in her car – the kid is antagonistic and he seems like so many petulant teenagers trying to find themselves as they grow into adults and prepare to become independent from their parents. And yet the mother (the wonderful Anne Dorval) isn’t perfect.

She’s doing her best as a single mother with a demanding teenage son who despises her for her clothes, her choice in home furnishings, her friends. It will never be enough for Hubert, particularly in comparison to the pal-like, modern relationship his friend Antonin shares with his mother in their airy, beautifully decorated home. And while Hubert finds temporary refuge from the continuous emotional maternal battle with one of his (female) teachers (Suzanne Clément), he is unaware that his haranguing of his mother does nothing to alter her love for him. In fact, her telephone explosion at the school’s principal tells us everything we need to know (and in fact everything Hubert needs to know if he could only hear her).

Such an extraordinary debut and such insight into people from one so young.

 

 

Dolan Directs: Introduction

I wish I could explain why I am so enamoured of the films of Canadian director Xavier Dolan.

His films are challenging, sometimes shouty, aggressively populated. The characters are outsiders yet ordinary, antagonistic to those closest to them, often unhappy or troubled.

But I find his films striking, mesmerising and above all, honest in a way which is rare.

And so, with Dolan’s film Juste la fin du monde getting its full UK cinema release in February (having premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2016), I’ve decided to revisit his films so far. There’ll be a post everyday in anticipation of seeing Juste la fin du monde again.

For French speakers (and I’ll admit, I didn’t understand all of this as the Canadian accent is sometimes beyond me!) here is a lengthy ‘masterclass’ with Dolan in which he speaks candidly about film making in general and his own films in particular.