Mommy (2014)


Last but definitely not least in Xavier Dolan’s filmography comes Mommy. This film takes up thematic threads that have been present throughout Dolan’s work, the wayward teenager, the insufferable mother, and adresses then with a new skill and maturity. Yes, the relationship is just as tense and difficult as it was in J’ai tué ma mère but it feels more genuinely troubled. The fights come from a place of suffering, a grieving widow against a mentally ill child, rather than a precocious queer kid rebelling against his emminently middle class mother and life.

The most openly striking thing about this film is the bold aesthetic choice of a 1×1 aspect ratio, a perfect square. The viewer is so used to a horizontal plane in the cinema, even the famously square and boxy academy aspect ratio was still only 5×4, that this 1×1 screen looks almost like a portrait framing. It does take a while to get used to, but like the splitscreen in As I lay Dying (James Franco), it’s only irritating for a few minutes before it becomes interesting. In this case it serves to enclose the characters visually, just as they are stuck physically in their suburban houses and emotionally in their fragile states.The film very quickly becomes a three-hander character study. Antoine-Olivier Pilon plays Steve, a sixteen-year-old with ADHD and, one suspects, many other problems, who’s just been kicked out a specialist school having seriously injured another child in a fight. His performance is very delicate for a role that could be described as nothing more than crazed violence and grimacing. Pilon’s performance, however, allows you to see a gentle, caring side to Steve – even if that caring is expressed in a creepy lack of boundaries and oedipus-like adoration of the two mother figures in the film.

These two mother figures are played by Anne Dorval, playing Diana ‘Die’ Steve’s actual mother and Suzanne Clément, playing the disturbed and bereaved mother from across the street. We’ve seen both of these women before in Dolan’s films and their performances are still excellent. This is especially true of Clément, who is almost unrecognisable between her role as the wild and rebellious Fredérique in Laurence Anyways and the shy, stammering housewife she plays here. She demonstrates a great range as an actress once again imbuing her role with a depth beyond what even the, very good, script gave her. While the issues between Steve and Die are discussed and analysed and shouted through in fights of varying severity the balance that Kyla (Clément) brings into their life is based on silence. It’s a fitting role for the woman dealing with a stammer and an inability to speak after the death of her son. We never find out what happened to this son, and Kyla refuses to speak of any topics that approach it. Throughout the film, the less is said of something, the more is understood. We know that Kyla is educating Steve to fill the hole left by her job as a teacher and the death of her child. Steve knows that Kyla needs to get out of her house, where she regresses into a stammering mess, confronted with what remains of her family.

Mommy doesn’t really have a plot, the final scenes are foreshadowed by the introductory intertitles and so there’s no suspense. Instead we are treated to an all-encompassing chronicle of moments between these three characters and their unstable relationships with each other. The greater part of these relationships passes in what is screamed in anger or unsaid, only very rarely does the conversation and emotion flow freely. At these moments Dolan has recourse to his directorial tricks. Often this is done through the soundtrack, and the film seems to almost lapse into a cheesy music video, awkwardly but effectively giving these stunted feelings a voice. Yet twice in the film Dolan changes aspect ratio allowing Steve to literally open the world back into a glossy cinematic montage when life is going well. These moments of unbridled joy are a pleasure to watch, but like any cinematic experience, they too must end and reality close back in.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:               5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5



Tom à la Ferme (2013)


Moving forwards to Xavier Dolan’s fourth film and his first collaboration with a co-writer, adapting the script from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, we find Tom à la Ferme. After the first three films of Dolan’s I was still hesitant to declare whether or not I liked him as a director given my equivocal reactions to two of his films (Laurence Anyways and J’ai tué ma Mère). Tom à la Ferme however, is a very different experience. Gone are the pastel colours and baroque inserts in favour of a gritty, earthy yellow thriller atmosphere.

Tom à la Ferme, despite a highly stylised approach, full of haunting music and heightened sound effects, is less mannered than its predecessors. The slick editing and colour scheme only add to the atmosphere and the aspect ratio closing in on the already claustrophobic situation is deployed subtly but effectively. Dolan takes on the lead role once again, playing Tom, a young man grieving the loss of his lover Guillaume, all while hiding Guillaume’s sexuality from his bereaved mother. Enforcing this painful and uncomfortable pretence is Francis, Guillaume’s older brother and Tom’s opposite in every way. Where he is weak and svelt, Francis is a looming and imposing presence even when he’s out of shot. Where Tom is meek, pure, and honest, even while forced to express his emotions for his dead lover through a lie, Francis is a confusing mix of violent and tender and just a little bit self-loathing. He’s the perfect abuser, and abuse he does.

The script is very strong by virtue of its birth as a stage play, yet it does come up against a problem of suspension of disbelief. In the theatre we are very accustomed to characters not leaving the space, since the space is always the stage, yet when the film and the camera can go anywhere Tom’s apparent inability to leave is somehow less believable. It’s a difficult line to draw when you mix the imagery of eternal open plains with a set-up that requires a feeling of entrapment and I’m not entirely sure Dolan always manages to draw it. Nevertheless this film plunges the viewer into the uncomfortable and unhealthy dynamic that sets itself up between these two men and, to a lesser extent, the elderly mother on this farm. The poster image from this film shows one of the particularly successful moments of the film, an argument that takes place within the idyllic wheat-fields which turn out to be an inescapable razor-sharp hell on closer examination.

There’s a point where the film reaches an epitome of disturbing homoeroticism mixed with the looming threat of violence and you begin to wonder if you are in fact watching the fantasies of one or both of these men, or even if this is about to turn into a kind of twisted love story. Fortunately at this point Sarah, the cover-story girlfriend Francis has provided his mother with appears and shocks the viewer back into reality. With her arrival we see just how creepy and unsettling the situation that sucked in both us and Tom has become. He is wearing his dead lover’s clothes as Francis alternately flirts with him and threatens him, treating him as if he were grooming him for future use. As if Tom were another one of the farm animals that keep mysteriously dying around him. We also see the roots of this instability in the mother who fails to be either entirely welcoming or menacing. The performances are very strong and hold up coherently under scrutiny despite the script leaving more questions than answers about every single character’s true motivations.

It’s a gripping ride from beginning to end, fraught with a disturbed and passionate tension as the relationship dynamics build themselves on the foundation of a death. Dolan’s style shows through at certain moments and is palpable in the photographic framing of the shots. Yet more than anything else Tom à la Ferme is a genre piece; and it’s a very good psychological thriller.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Laurence Anyways (2012)


Third in the Xavier Dolan series of reviews is Laurence Anyways. This is one of the few films that I’ve reviewed here on this blog that I felt absolutely obligated to watch twice before putting pen to paper, and probably an even rarer example of me changing my mind radically on a second viewing.

I think part of this change is that Laurence Anyways doesn’t make sense on the first viewing. It’s engaging and very beautifully shot but the earliest scenes make very little sense when you don’t know the end. For example, early in the film Laurence finds himself teaching a class on Celine and asking whether artistic talent can overtake the marginalised reputation of the person writing. It’s an interesting question, but not one whose significance is clear when you don’t know that Laurence himself is, as we later discover, a trans woman, and thus a member of these marginalised groups. The only clue the first time viewer has had is the opening shots, which while they clearly show shocked reactions to a woman walking, give no clue as to the fact that this woman is in fact the man that the film cuts to ten years earlier. It feels like Dolan almost wanted to use the backwards film structure of Betrayal and 5×2 but shied away at the last minute. After all, the film does end with the central couple’s first meeting. It could have just as easily started with their parting.

This couple is the heart of the film. Dolan avoids making Laurence’s transition into the main story; it’s not what’s really happening. While, of course, the ten-year span tracks the transition implicitly it’s only because the relationship at the core of the film spans those same ten years. The two lead performances allow this film to thrive, both are sensitive and deep portrayals that take into account the changes that time brings. In places their dynamic becomes very hard to watch since they remain through the whole film two people who love each other but simply cannot be together. Yes, they were crazily in love and a happy couple but they were more crazy than anything else at that time. Both of them fail to communicate what they’re going through, keeping secrets for years or having it all come out in a screaming match.

Suzanne Clément heartbreakingly portrays her character’s struggle, Fredérique never truly accepts Laurence as a woman, still being in love with Laurence the man. She loses it seeing him dressed in womens’ clothes and hearing people refer to him as her girlfriend. At their first breakup even Laurence understands this, and comes in mens’ clothes, planting the seeds of hope that keep the pair of them circling round each other for the years to come. Fredérique lives in the illusion that Laurence’s transition was what kept them apart. In fact it was her caring for him and loving him enough to be on his side during the transition that kept the sinking ship together.

Melvil Poupaud’s portrayal of Laurence is more subtle still. Laurence is not a cliché of a transgender woman. He’s not a flamboyant drag queen about it and even refuses to wear wigs, preferring his awkwardly male hair until he can grow it down. He is contrasted to a group of drag queens and old dames whose expression is all about performance and self-marginalisation while Laurence yearns for a quiet acceptance of his self. Poupaud does a good job of never quite making Laurence seem fully female until the very end, the last moments when Fredérique finally accepts that she’s in love with a man that doesn’t exist anymore, even if this woman bares his face and name. Until that time Laurence lives in the denial that he can get her back despite being a woman, and she fools herself that it’s just dress-up. At this point in the film Xavier Dolan throws clothes from the sky in a music video style interlude – one of many – just to really land the point. It’s stylish, but the film would have been fine without it.

Unfortunately, despite the very interesting story and character relationships, even including the other women in Laurence’s life, his mother, Fredérique’s sister, there is just simply too much of this film. Structurally it doesn’t hold together. Quite apart from the parts that don’t have meaning until you watch it a second time, at which point they do slot beautifully into place, there are sections that just don’t need to be there. The rose club Laurence finds himself with are interesting for a while and create an interesting comparison but they don’t move anything forwards, they’re just dead time. In other places it seems as if Dolan falls back on his editing skills and ability to create effortlessly stylish cult-classic scenes to fill in for a structural default, like the ball that Fredérique finds herself at and the aforementioned falling clothes.

The film is nearly three hours long, and feels it, probably less and less on each subsequent viewing but that’s still a problem. There are parts that could have been cut out, which would probably make more sense of the whole if you didn’t have so much time to forget all of the million scenes that have gone on to try and sort out which ones were relevant or not. We’ve seen what Xavier Dolan can do in 100 minutes in Les amours imaginaires and J’ai tué ma mere. Why did he suddenly need the extra 70?

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Les Amours Imaginaires (2010)


Earlier this week I reviewed Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère and was not entirely convinced that the director merited his cult status. Yet after Les amours imaginaires I could not be more pleasantly surprised by the improvement between the first and second film. Les Amours Imaginaires follows two best friends who both fall for Nicolas, the tall blond stranger that walks into their world. It’s been said before and will be said again, as far as plot goes, the set-up is a modern day Jules et Jim complete with an ironic predisposition for kitsch vintage of that precise time.

Stylistically Dolan again takes his lead from the Nouvelle Vague, interspersing his film with faux-documentary style interviews like in Godard’s Masculin Feminin. The camera frenetically zooms in and out of these mini-confessionals to preserve the style, but the device very quickly becomes overused and visually annoying. These interview cutaways give the film a context; despite the heightened reality of slo-mos and surrealist shots perfectly framed and accompanied by loud, Italian music, this story is not unusual. It’s just one of the many failed love affairs being experienced by all young people. Every one of these stories could have had a film, it just so happens that we ended up with this one.

The film does a fantastic job of building up the stakes while leaving the character of Nicolas as vapid and mysterious as possible. His motivations and emotions are entirely unknown, and he seems like a living embodiment of “ignorance is bliss”. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) go through hell at his hands analysing where his affections may or may not lie while Nicolas simply continues in a totally separate universe unaware of any problems and accidentally making it worse. He shares a bed with the pair of them as friends, reaches out to put his arms round their shoulders and seems to act with just enough interest to turn two friends deep in unrequited love into enemies in an uncomfortable ménage-a-trois.

In the end that’s the great beauty and tragedy in this film: none of it actually happens. It’s a story of two people who project a fantasy onto the same guy, a dream which starts to encroach on reality, poisoning their day-to-day lives, ruining great moments and eventually turning the two best friends against each other. What’s even worse is that it’s normal. Everyone in the film is imagining their way to hell and as much as they seek comfort in interchangeable anonymous trysts filmed through filters, the life they imagine for themselves is quite literally more colourful than the love they can acquire.

Quite apart from all this, the film is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography is certainly still in the realm of art photography rather than blockbuster clichés but it loses the clumsy overworked feel of J’ai tué ma mere. The soundtrack lurches between classical music and vapid club beats via Dalida’s cover of Bang Bang but it marries together in a reflection of the three poles of the awkward love triangle that emerges. The references and winks towards a wider culture of art, mythology and cinema stars abound, rooting Les Amours Imaginaires as one of the many archetypical stories that everyone lives through, here rendered with mastery and style.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      5/5

Lolita (1962)


One thing that it is impossible to deny about Kubrick, and that is that he certainly has his own style. I read both A Clockwork Orange and Lolita in 2012 and it has been my terrible reaction to Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange that has held me back from watching Lolita until my affection and memory for the book faded a little. I did well to wait.

Kubrick’s Lolita is just that, Kubrick’s. It seems almost unfair to give it the same name as the book of which it guards very little of the sentiment or atmosphere and even changes the structure, destroying the central mystery. Now I’m not normally one to complain about inaccuracies to a source text, one of my favourite films is a modern-day adaptation of Great Expectations. Yet when Kubrick does it the film seems to no longer bear any resemblance to the source. It seems as if he’s taken all the character names and a few situations from the book and transposed them into an entirely different film and universe.

This is not to say that the film isn’t enjoyable – it’s in places very funny. Shelley Winters gives a fantastic performance as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother. She’s a perfect parody of suburban middle America, mindlessly dull while believing herself the height of sophistication. Sue Lyon’s performance as Lolita does well to waver between childish and adult desires. Yet peppered throughout the film are long monologues from Peter Sellers doing impressions as if this were his audition tape for Dr Strangelove. Particularly given that we’ve been shown the climax at the beginning and know that Sellers’ Quilty is the villain his appearances are somewhat redundant. The glib manner that he employs takes away from any tension that could have been built up. When the darkest threat in your film is a man doing silly voices on the end of a phone line something has been lost.

For Kubrick, Lolita is not a young girl, certainly not a pre-pubescent nymphet, she’s a teenager equipped with her own non-ambiguous libido and desires. If anything she pushes the relationship with the older Humbert rather than forcing the viewer or the character to truly confront Humbert’s perverse desires. Which, of course are less perverse given Lolita’s age here. It’s no worse than American Beauty in a way. In fact Humbert seems almost entirely passive in this adaptation, going along with the whims of the women that surround him and allowing first the mother, then the daughter to boss him around. Quite far from the tortured and scheming Humbert of the book this man seems to lack self-awareness and control right up to the last moment.

The problem with this film seems to be an overall confusion of subject and point. Is it a parody of the American way of life? An exploration of youth and sexuality? Or even a torrid love affair that happens to have an age difference? With such questions, interspersed with awkward comedic turns Lolita leaves the viewer ultimately unsatisfied and with questions about the film, rather than about the film’s message.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             2/5
  • Intellectual:      2/5

J’ai tué ma mère (2009)

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Continuing the rough course through cinema of “watching whatever is recommended to me” I recently came across Xavier Dolan, whose films I will now proceed to watch (and review) in order of their release. That means starting off with with J’ai tué ma mere.

The film certainly bears the hallmarks of a first film, or maybe just a young film. There’s a flamboyant and ostentatious rebellion that oozes through the length of the film and needs reigning in in places. Certainly there’s a concern for style over substance that can become annoying. For example, the cinematographic trick of alienating the characters from each other in off-centre close ups is certainly intelligent and works very well, except when the off-centre framing is literally cutting off a character’s nose and forcing them to box their performance into a tiny and unnatural space.

Yet the film can be forgiven stylistic foibles through the force of emotion and honesty that propels it. It is definitely not the structure of the screenplay that guides us as viewers. The events lurch between people and locations that seem disparate and haphazard. Plotlines seem to be forgotten then woven back in at ironically unexpected moments. In this way it’s a lot more like real life than any constructed narrative. All the characters genuinely have other lives and motives that don’t just serve Dolan’s story.

At the heart of it all is the universally difficult moment when a child breaks out from under their mother’s wing. Peppering the film are moments of a monologue, shown to be shot on a DV camera but then shown to us in HD black and white – directorial conceit ran wild there. In this monologue Hubert (Dolan) outlines his true feelings for his mother, a kind of confused and forced love that inescapable and inherent. It’s not so much his mother that is controlling him or that he is trying to break away from, it’s much more his love for her that he resents. He searches for a female guide, idolising his boyfriend’s mother and even his teacher before coming round to accepting what he already has and loves, even if he doesn’t like her. Both Dolan’s performance and Anne Dorval’s as the mother hold up to scrutiny, and it’s a testament to a screenwriting talent to be able to render both mother and son with sensitivity and depth. It would have been very easy for Dolan, who is essentially acting his own teenage crisis on screen to just paint the mother as the demon he attacks in the choppy arguments littered through the film. Yet the mother is very much her own person, and not even a bad person. She loves her son; she’s just not compatible with him and it’s hurting them both just as badly.

In the end the whole film feels a little like a confessional – that fittingly ends at the “Our Lady of Sorrows” boarding school. It’s as if Dolan found himself at the crossroads of adulthood with all the questions that raises about life, sexuality, identity, art and even religion. While in the film Hubert comes to some peace through a mixture of quiet realisations and drug-filled confessions before accepting and inviting his mother into his life and his kingdom, in real life Xavier Dolan made this film. Part diatribe, part apology but full of cinematic and personal freedom.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

Les Belles de Nuit – 1952


One of the wonderful things about cinema is that despite the relative youth of the medium it came into being at a time that was so democratic and individualist that it seems one can never run out of it. The sheer number of filmmakers existent across the globe at any point in time means that variety really is the spice of life, in terms of style and content, when tracking back through the archives.

Thus is the optimism that René Clair’s 1952 film has left me with. Made just after the second world war, a time when French society was desperately trying to justify itself after the upheaval of it’s war regime les belles de nuit traces French history elegantly backwards. It seems as if Clair is trying to assert his contemporary France by calling up the national memory of bygone eras. We see France in the not-at-all-nostalgically-named Belle Époque, the revolutionary wars, the old monarchy and the time of the musketeers.

But les belles de nuit is not a political film, despite the potential for socio-historical analysis. The heart of the film rests on the performance of a certain foppish and endearing Gérard Philippe, down and out pianist dreaming of love. And this he does, literally. He shuts himself off from his real life in order to chase the fantasy women he sees in his dreams of the past. It’s not that his normal life is unsatisfactory, far from it – his friends worry for him, he has a beautiful girl in love with him and he’s a talented musician. The film explores what happens when someone can’t see the joy in their own life and feels the need to escape. It’s a little like a cross between Midnight in Paris and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The interest from a cinematic point of view comes from a humourous lightness of touch that removes the potential for melodrama but fails to fall into parody or silliness. Yes, the film is funny, the dream sequences complete with moving pantomime theatre sets are indulgent and kitsch – but they’re dreams and the shifting narrative sands and archetypes of dreaming are rendered so well that the humour itself becomes poetic, rather than the film hovering and to-ing and fro-ing between gags and serious moments. Every potential joke that can be made, within the limits of the natural absurdity of life, is made. Even when it’s patently ridiculous and ironic to the extreme the running gags never seem impossible, just unlucky.

Most importantly Les Belles de Nuit is enjoyable. Certainly, it opens doors to speak about artistic inspiration, the significance of dreams, the dangers of naïve nostalgia and the necessity to appreciate what you have while you have it, but when all is said and done you will still be able to put on this film, sit down and pass a good hour and a half laughing and smiling with the characters on screen.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:     3/5


Ce que je trouve magnifique dans le cinéma c’est que, malgré sa naissance relativement récente, il nous est venu à un moment de l’histoire si démocratique et individualiste qu’il me semble impossible de l’épuiser. C’est-à-dire que la quantité de cinéastes qui auront existé dans tous les coins du monde à n’importe quel moment donné produit une variété de styles et de thématiques vraiment époustouflante, surtout quand on le regarde avec du recul.

C’est à cela que m’a fait penser ce film de René Clair. Réalisé en 1952 juste après la deuxième guerre mondiale, époque troublée de la France après l’Occupation, Les Belles de nuit retraverse l’histoire de la France avec élégance et grâce. Il semble exprimer ce qu’est la France en 1952 à travers une mise en valeur de ce qu’elle était auparavant. Il nous montre la France de la Belle Époque, les guerres en Algérie, l’Ancien Régime et le règne de Louis XIII.

Mais Les Belles de nuit n’est pas à proprement dire un film politique, malgré la forte possibilité d’une analyse socio-historique. Au coeur de ce film se trouve le fin jeu de comédien d’un certain Gérard Philippe, tout charmant en tant que pianiste fauché qui rêve d’amour. Ceci est ce qu’il fait, littéralement. Il rejette sa propre vie pour retrouver les femmes imaginaires dont il rêve chaque nuit dans ses rêves des mondes passés. Ce n’est pas que sa vraie vie est invivable, bien au contraire – ses amis s’occupent de lui, une belle jeune fille est amoureuse de lui et il est lui-même un musicien doué. Ce film examine donc les conséquences quand on n’arrive pas à apprécier sa propre vie et qu’on sent un besoin d’y échapper. C’est un peu à mi-chemin entre It’s a Wonderful Life ­and Midnight in Paris.

D’un point de vue cinématographique l’intérêt vient du style léger et humoristique qui allège le potentiel de mélodrame en même temps qu’il évite de (se) dégénérer en parodie, voire en niaiserie. Oui, certes, le film est drôle, surtout les séquences de rêve où le décor bouge et semble tiré d’une mauvaise pantomime – mais ce sont des rêves et c’est exactement ça qui rend si bien la sensation de flou narratif qu’on sent tous dans les rêves. L’humeur elle-même devient poétique, plutôt qu’un basculement fatiguant entre le sérieux et le drôle tout au long du film. Chaque blague qui peut se faire, en tenant compte de l’absurdité indéniable de la vie, se fait. Même quand la situation devient ridicule et ironique à l’extrême, les blagues ne semblent jamais venir du royaume de l’impossible, juste de la mauvaise chance.

Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Les Belles de Nuit, c’est qu’on s’amuse en le regardant. Oui, on peut y tirer des discours sur l’inspiration poétique, la signification des rêves, les dangers d’une nostalgie naïve et surtout la nécessité d’apprécier la vie pendant qu’on la vit, mais en fin de compte ce sera encore possible de s’asseoir devant ce film et de passer un bon moment avec les personnages qu’il nous présente.

*Note from the blogger – the French translation is not a permanent feature on this blog, however more will be appearing especially for French Cinema on an ongoing basis of when I feel I can adequately express everything said in the English in French*