Perhaps one of the most common reasons we watch movies and so willingly dive into the stories they offer us is to understand both others and ourselves better as the complicated human beings we are. The idea of fleshing out human relationships in film isn’t exactly a new one, but this concept is taken a step further in the work of Xavier Dolan, the insanely accomplished 29-year-old Québécois writer-director with six directed features under his belt (with his seventh premiering in a matter of days at this year’s TIFF). Dolan doesn’t shy away from focusing on the more convoluted and confusing aspects of relationships—in fact, he does quite the opposite. One of the shared traits found throughout Dolan’s films is his ability to shed light on the intimate, personal nature of the relationships we share with one another.
In Dolan’s directorial debut I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère)—which he also wrote and starred in—the focus is a 16-year-old boy named Hubert (Dolan) and his tumultuous relationship with his mother (Anne Dorval). It is pointed out by Hubert in the opening scene of the film, a monologue shot in black-and-white with lingering close-ups on various parts of Hubert’s face, that he does indeed love his mother very much, but he cannot stand being her son. The animosity between them reaches a point where Hubert, to get out of an assignment that would involve interviewing his mother, tells his teacher (Suzanne Clément) that she is dead.
Their relationship maintains a balance of quiet tenderness and overt irritation, often maintained by the subtler interactions shared between the two. The camera will shift from a shot of Hubert’s eyes glancing over at his mother to a close-up of her consuming her food, the displeasure evident on Hubert’s face. This interaction opens up the idea of how even a person’s more mundane habits can become an provocation when enough tension is present, something we often don’t like to admit, especially when it comes to our parents. But it is moments such as these in the film, which show our own behaviours towards relationships that we often want to ignore, that make it so easy to connect with.
Dolan’s sophomore film Heartbeats (Les Amours imaginaires)—again written by and starring Dolan—also has a complicated relationship at its core: two close friends, Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), both find themselves completely enamored with the same man, Nicolas (Niels Schneider). This obviously complicates things not only between the two friends, but between each person and Nicolas, whom they both formed a new friendship with. This proved to be catastrophic for both friends: although they both begin by pretending they had little interest in him, it becomes overwhelmingly clear quite quickly that they’ll do anything to win his affections, including tearing each other down—all to please a man who they shamelessly romanticize.
The tension between Francis and Sophie culminates at a cottage Nicolas brings them to, where Marie wakes up one morning in a panic when she realizes Nicolas and Francis are nowhere to be found—presumably not concerned for their safety, but rather that they are most likely alone together. She finally spots them, but the camera leaves them out of focus as nothing but mere specks in the distance, leaving Marie to be a helpless outsider. When Francis catches up with her, the pair have a full-blown wrestling match, leaving Nicolas to watch the pair as an awkward on-looker, suddenly becoming the outsider of the group. It is instances like this that demonstrate the dangers of idealized infatuation, and how it is quite often mistaken for love. In every scene where Francis and Marie are with other they are drenched in neon lighting, only ever seeing their companion in the single color that is lighting up the room—they have no hope of ever living up to the full spectrum of colors in which Francis and Marie see Nicolas. This idea is pushed forward by segments interspersed throughout the film of interviewees describing their own false loves, exposing the true nature of Francis’ and Marie’s relationships with Nicolas.
Dolan’s third film Laurence Anyways (once again written by Dolan) is a nearly-three-hour introspective journey into the lives of a transgender woman named Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaid) and her wife Fred (Suzanne Clément) with whom she shares that she feels she has not been living her true life while in a man’s body and wants to start anew as a woman. The film largely follows how this transition affected their relationship, and whether it even truly altered the course of where they ended up. How is a seemingly boundless love affected when your partner feels they were meant to be somebody else? Does it change anything at all?
When Laurence begins her transition, Fred encourages her to dress how she truly desires and even buys her a wig. Their time together in the film is always depicted as an emotional high for the two characters, the periods when they reunite characterized by upbeat music and dreamlike sequences, such as when the pair walk through the snow-filled streets with colourful pieces of clothing falling from the sky. While their relationship was not necessarily always an easy one, their final conversation in the film establishes that each of their presences in the life of the other helped them become the people they are now. The film’s final scene shows us the moment that Fred and Laurence first met, and this sentiment becomes even more clear.
Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme), Dolan’s fourth feature and adapted from a play of the same title, follows a young man named Tom (Dolan), who arrives at the rural home of his late boyfriend, Guillaume, in order to deliver a eulogy at his funeral. However, he shows up to discover that his mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), does not know that her son was gay. He is also surprised to learn that he has a brother named Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who threateningly tells Tom that he must not give his original eulogy at the funeral that would have outed Guillaume. Tom then struggles to work out his relationship with his deceased lover’s family and find his place among Guillaume’s oblivious mother and seemingly violent brother.
The film’s fairly muted colour palette, filled with browns, greens, and greys, provide a dreary and somewhat hopeless tone to the film, which suggests the idea that Tom is confined and does not have many options for how to deal with Guillaume’s family. This is especially the case with Tom’s relationship with Francis, who at times seems to want to get close to Tom but then exhibits extremely aggressive behaviour towards him. In a scene where Tom is chased through the cornstalks by Francis, the aspect ratio shifts so that it is as if the weight and anxiety of his surroundings are closing in on him. These, in combination with the close-ups on both Tom and Francis’ faces when interacting with one another, demonstrates the confused responsibility yet potentially toxic outcome these relationships built on kept secrets can have.
At the centre of Xavier Dolan’s fifth film, Mommy, is the relationship between a widowed mother who goes by Die (Anne Dorval) and her teenage son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who suffers from ADHD and occasional violent outbursts. The film is set in a fictional version of Canada, where a law has been passed that permits parents to institutionalize their troubled children without running it through the justice system. This serves an underlying point of tension throughout the film, putting strain on what is already a rollercoaster of a mother-son relationship. But soon a new neighbour named Kyla (Suzanne Clément) comes into the picture to aid Die and Steve, and the three of them form a small, unconventional family of sorts.
Kyla’s presence in the lives of Die and Steve is an uplifting one that challenges the perspective of all three characters. This is once again demonstrated through a shifting aspect ratio (the use of which in this film is often highly praised). During a euphoric sequence accompanied by the nostalgia-inducing melodies of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” Steve is seen riding on his skateboard, not too far off from Die and Kyla, and, motioning with hands, he appears to physically open up the aspect ratio to a fuller widescreen display. Being able to help each other has caused them to thrive, and the world has opened up for these characters. But naturally, life and relationships don’t often stay this way, and the aspect ratio again becomes restricting. Die and Steve are also often shown to be openly vulnerable with another, as is seen in a scene where Steve puts on makeup and sings to his mother. Each of them stare directly into the camera as if they are staring at the other person, and in these glances alone it is evident that their multi-layered relationship is the centre of this story.
Dolan’s most recent film, It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde), is based on Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play and follows a terminally ill playwright named Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) who flies home to a family he has not seen in several years in order to tell them that he is dying. Upon his arrival, he struggles to fully connect with his family, having been absent for so long. He finds it difficult to find his place among his family, many of their conversations tense and awkward, and does not know quite how to tell them he is dying, when they are mostly just saddened that he has been gone for such a long period of time.
With his younger sister, Suzanne (Léa Seydoux), it is apparent that more than anything, she just wants to get to know her older brother that she knows so minimally. Their conversation in her bedroom demonstrates how distant they are, but this also makes Suzanne appear the most willing to accept whatever Louis has come to say. Suzanne’s bedroom wall is covered with posters and tokens that are reflective of her personality, Louis exploring it with almost a sense of awe, and Blink-182’s “I Miss You” echoing in the background while Suzanne smokes and stares off into the distance. The scene shows the desire that the two of them have to connect with another, but they just don’t quite know how to do so—yet this is likely the most innocent and untainted relationship that Louis has with one of his family members.
As is evident in his filmography, Xavier Dolan possesses the ability to masterfully weave together pieces of complicated relationships that while impossible to ever fully understand, even for those in them, come clearer before our eyes. His films tend to give us unique insight that help us further comprehend our nature as human beings and how we live to exist with one another. We’re excited to see where Dolan goes next on his path of unpacking human relationships on the screen.