Though Xavier Dolan’s home of origin shares a border with the US, and his home of Montreal is mere hours away from the arthouse hub of New York City, his films have had something of a limited theatrical lifetime in the United States. To date, his widest release is 2010’s Heartbeats, which reached 10 screens. This limited distribution scope is disproportionate to the discourse the filmmaker has generated around his youth and his films’ refusal to conform to both supposed arthouse standards (often imbuing a pop culture-infused energy) and general commercial concerns (experimental shooting formats of the yet-to-be-released Tom at the Farm and Mommy, the epic length of Laurence Anyways).
Indeed, Dolan seems to be on the precipice of moving quickly from a gem whose films are shared and discussed between clusters of cinephiles to a major foreign figure in the US arthouse scene. His fifth feature, Mommy, won the Jury Prize at Cannes (which it shared with Godard’s Goodbye to Language), was chosen as Canada’s official submission to the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and will be released stateside later this winter. The fast-working director has quickly moved onto his sixth feature and his first in English, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. While there is a great deal to anticipate in Dolan’s near future, his existing body of work is quite remarkable, and signifies an unmatched vision of shared experimentation, classic dramatic storytelling, and overt stylization that makes his films spectacularly unique.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a prodigious multi-hyphenate.
Dolan is young, a fact that is as remarkable as it is obvious. Yes, at barely over a quarter-century in age, Dolan has helmed five features, several of which have competed at Cannes, the latest of which one a major award at that festival. Good for him. But youth is hardly a uniform category, and remarking upon Dolan’s age is as unspecific as referring to him as a “millennial” or taking note of his nationality ‐ these aspects no doubt play some conscious, unconscious, and structural role in shaping his work, but they can also distract from the specificity of his approach to filmmaking.
Dolan is unapologetic about his tastes, his sensibilities, and his supposed excesses, and this is key to the work of a “young” filmmaker whose subjects, characters, and allegiances aren’t exclusively tied to aspects of youth. By not scrutinizing his own youth or identity (as queer, Canadian, Québécois, etc.) with respect to his filmmaking (as his observers so often do), Dolan simply lets his concerns ‐ his desires of what he wants to see manifested onto the screen ‐ take him wherever they may. We already see differences and shifts in his work (Mommy as a rejoinder or even reversal of I Killed My Mother, for instance) and this is a sign not of a filmmaker “aging” or “growing,” but a filmmaker creating throughout an array of work. As prolific as Dolan is, his work will inevitably become irreducible to a few categorizing or periodizing shorthands.
Film Comment: “At MoMA you spoke about two different types of films: those you watch versus those you feel. Yours are very much the latter. A lot of the feeling and mood you create comes through your distinct visual style. Are you thinking in images as you write, or do the aesthetics form during shooting?”
Dolan: “When you’re planning a sequence like the ball in Laurence Anyways, you need to think about that before shooting because you have a production designer who’s asking you questions and to whom you’re giving directions. But in terms of the finality of the visuals ‐ I’m talking about frame, movement, light, motion ‐ this really all happens on set, in the spur of the moment. You look at the angle of someone’s face, or the environment around you now that it’s dressed and populated by extras and actors. You see the whole picture, and ideas appear…”
We often think of the arduous process of filmmaking as something that must be methodical, sober, and deliberate by design, with so many moving parts, tight schedules, and budget concerns. But filmmaking requires adaptability and improvisation, a process that results more from feeling than lucid, “rational” thinking ‐ in other words, creativity.
“I’m a big fan of music in general, good music. It was my great pleasure to [bring that to the character of] Laurence: music and discoveries that made me happy at a certain point in my life. Some people claim there’s too much of it in my films. I might feel like there’s too much of it in the end. But to me, that’s what cinema is about.
“We have entered a decade where people are obsessed with minimalist acting. But as far as minimalism goes, you just can’t act like Bill Murray in Broken Flowers all the time, because there’s no more fun left. If it feels like my characters are over the top, too flamboyant…I don’t even think about these things. I’m just excited to make a movie! And it’s the same with music. I’m listening to a song and immediately start thinking, ‘This is perfect for the project.’ I write scenes around certain songs. Music was the only voice of cinema for a very long time before we had sound; it’s organically linked to cinema itself. So I see no reason to restrain myself.”
Cue the eclectic soundtrack to Laurence Anyways.
“Titanic made me want to tell stories…To have all these characters and costumes and have ambition and think big and have dreams… It came at a very troubled period of my life. I was a bully at school and my mom was sending me to boarding school and I saw Titanic right before that. I saw it 35 times. Thirty-five times and a half, because one time my mom brought me to the theater to see As Good As it Gets and I thought it was really boring because I was young and I’d never seen it since ‐ I’m sure it’s good ‐ and I said I was going to the bathroom and, instead I went to see (the rest of) Titanic.”
It seems common wisdom that a filmmaker should not read her/his reviews in order not to be errantly “influenced” by them ‐ to get the interfering voices of critics out of one’s head towards a full, unencumbered view of the filmmaking process. Maybe some filmmakers have the privilege to live in such an echo chamber, but often films and their discourses are rather inseparable ‐ the discourse, in fact, frames the way that films and filmmakers are often seen, especially for festival circuit films that are seen by critics months in advance of the general public. Dolan, out of a curiosity both genuine and morbid, refuses to live in such a hermetically sealed bubble. It seems more honest (if time-consuming) to make films while openly knowing what people say about them, whether that feedback is insightful or not. In that way, you’re living with your films in the same fashion that most others are.
“That’s what being a director is. You conceive a movie within a collective of people, a community. You work with people but they don’t work for you. It’s ludicrous to think people work for you: ‘a film by…’ doesn’t exist. Directed by, maybe, but it’s a film from a collective, a group of people whom you consult and seek your counsel and advice and vice versa too. I love the way it all happened on Laurence Anyways because every department was colliding and merging into others and that’s the way it should work, I think.”
What We’ve Learned
While some filmmakers from the English-speaking parts of Canada have seen their work travel across North America with relative ease, Québécois filmmakers have witnessed significant difficulty in the US arthouse scene. Xavier Dolan looks to become the most visible French Canadian filmmaker since Denys Arcand. And he has done so not through designing his films within a direct, legible tradition of what Québécois, Canadian, arthouse, independent, youth, or queer filmmaking should be, but rather by owning his own particular vision and seeing it through.
As a result, Xavier Dolan is an impressive and singular figure within contemporary narrative filmmaking: someone who has accomplished so much and so distinctly, yet also undoubtedly has much more left in store. Now, if only someone would secure US distribution for Tom at the Farm.