The first sight of Xavier Dolan I have is of the 25-year-old film Québécois director draped over one of his promotional team in the lobby of New York’s Mercer Hotel, the kind of place so fashionable the first trick it plays on mere mortals is to not make clear where its front door is, leaving you to paw pathetically at its windows.
Dolan’s flack consoles the softly whining Dolan about his day of interviews. He demands how many more he must do.
The stupid decision has been made by Dolan’s people that this accomplished 25-year-old film director, who has five feature films under his belt, should see a battery of journalists in small chunks of time. Dolan is intelligent and loquacious, and naturally enough is getting tired and antsy.
It’s a lose-lose all round, even more irritating because Dolan’s latest film, Mommy, is a masterpiece (no other word for it, and no exaggeration), and deserves as wide an audience as possible.
Mommy, which shared the third-place Jury Prize and won a 16-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, follows the hyper-intense relationship between a mother, Diane/”Die” (Anne Dorval), and her disturbed son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon).
They are yolked together, and love each other, and hate each other. Steve can be charming and utterly terrifying. Oddly, the presence of their next-door neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who inserts herself into the domestic set-up, acts as a calming fulcrum, and the three become a family unit.
What makes Dolan’s film so unique is not just the way it is shot—the frame of the screen is an unconventional size, until a great moment when it returns to its familiar shape—but also the high pitch of the film. It is a movie of extremes—anger, beauty, love, and emotion. It see-saws, dizzyingly and with a great music soundtrack, between comedy and drama, and then finally tragedy. It was Canada’s entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and shamefully it was not nominated.
“It’s how I live and how I feel about things,” Dolan says of the movie’s intensity. He, too, is extremely handsome, intense, and measured. “I do have a lot of rage, angst, anxiety, and anger.” He has spoken about having a nervous breakdown.
“My extreme characters are in a state of rebellion,” Dolan says, “or who are being ostracized or being misunderstood, or misfits or trying to fit in and fighting for their rights to love, live, and co-exist. They sort of mirror my own demons.”
Which are what? “Pretty much not childhood demons,” he says quickly. “I don’t have mom issues or dad issues. I think I have found peace about many things in my past. I have forgiven and asked to be forgiven.”
His first film, which he funded himself, was called I Killed My Mother (2009), which again starred Dorval as the lead character’s mother, with Dolan himself playing her son. Again, the vexed mother-son relationship is central.
“There are many mothers in my films,” says Dolan. “My mother (Geneviève) has nothing to do with Mommy, although awkwardly there are always parts of her, and always parts of myself that find themselves into these roles.”
So, what was his relationship with his mother like? “It is not about intensity, but about compatibility, and most particularly incompatibility,” he says pointedly. “In Mommy, the mother and son are at odds and love each other and understand each other, and are the same, which isn’t really case with my mother and me.”
Dolan won’t talk about their relationship now, but says she is a “pretty aggressive supporter” of his movies. “She brings all her friends to them.”
Dolan’s father, Manuel Tadros, an actor and singer, was around, “but I didn’t get along with him when I was younger,” Dolan says—although his father has been lauding his son with loving, respectful quotes in recent interviews.
Dolan says he was bought up mostly under the care of his father’s mother, who would babysit him when his father wasn’t there, “and when he was there we weren’t having a good time.”
The young Dolan, like Die and Steve in Mommy, lived in a suburb of Montreal, 30 minutes from the city—indeed the film is filmed in the same neighborhood. Six months of the year, he lived with his great aunt. “I was brought up by women,” he says.
A family acquaintance said Geneviève and Xavier shared a lot of electricity, and that sometimes shorted—but there was a lot of love between them. Dolan himself fizzed with ideas and ambition for his future. His first film was released when he was 19, and he has made almost one a year since.
I ask Dolan if he missed having a male influence and he says he did, “but I don’t know what the implications now are of that absence of a male model. The absence of male models and how you see men as a child—for young gay man it defines their relationship to sex. It’s hard to explain some patterns, I guess—what you’re seeking and not seeking, what you’re letting in and not letting in, what you’re afraid of, and not afraid of.”
The consequences of not having a father figure were not dramatic, Dolan insists. “If anything, it was more a blessing or inspirational. Every childhood trauma or absence always turn out to be the weapons and tools you can use to build a personality and body of work if you are a creative person.”
Coming out, Dolan says, was “problematic for years. It’s recently been alleviated by the arrival of someone in my life.” A boyfriend? “Sure yeah. It’s extremely profound. It really did change me. I realized there was a whole part of myself that was dormant until now. I feel more complete. He actually he made me feel complete.”
From age 4, Dolan wanted to be an actor, and only became a director, he says, so no-one would interfere with his casting choices. Directing is his true passion—he feels “complete” in that environment, though he doesn’t find it as fulfilling as acting. “I need to act,” he says emphatically. It helps him understand the actors he is directing, for one, although “of course” he is not a total egomaniac, and is fine about being directed by others.
When Dolan was young, he saw Titanic, “a film so big and so huge, so ambitious, so gigantic. It made me want for life to be extraordinary. It is a film of major ambition and that achieved to be as gigantic as its subject. And it made me want to dream big and have dreams. When I saw that film I decided however long it would be, my life needed to be extraordinary.”
His direction of Mommy is astonishing, because each character’s story is fully and fairly told, and the imagery and style of the movie is light, then lurid, playful and relentless.
The film is full of argument and fights, of comedy and an amazing musical interlude, as well as overtones of incest, maternal love and maternal hate, a mother’s love for a child, and the limits of that love, right up until the film’s searing denouement. The dramatic scenes are like “candy” for an actor to play, Dolan says; it’s the quieter scenes where you don’t have words and props and grandstanding emotion to fall back on that are more challenging.
Dolan’s age is majored on, flatteringly, alongside his accomplishments to date—besides words like wunderkind. “They’ll stop eventually when talking about my age doesn’t seem right any more,” Dolan says. “I’ve been jaded about it since film number two. Eventually, when I’m 29, they’ll stop writing it down. What can I say? There’s nothing I can do with it. I can’t use it to grow in my art or use it to understand myself. It’s just a label to ghettoize what I do. I don’t believe in age, generations, tags. I really, honestly, don’t care.”
However, ageing does play on his mind. “I’m very much a hypochondriac, worried about dying, and not having enough time to work with the people I want to work with and being fulfilled as an actor.” Is Dolan ambitious? “Yes, I came from nowhere. All my life, I heard ‘Stop daydreaming,’ Get over yourself,’ ‘You’ll never get there,’ ‘Aim lower, ‘You’ll hurt yourself,’ from teachers, family, and friends.”
Later when his achievements racked up, those same people, he says, told him they always knew he’d make it. “It frustrates me to see what perception people have of me,” he says. Which is what? “As someone who works alone,” he says. One acquaintance said recently he was arrogant, a brat, but “a loveable brat.”
Dolan’s father has said he is very proud of his son, that Dolan has a “strong humanity.” His father has told Dolan not to let “the business eat your morality.” So far that has not happened, his father said.
The next Dolan movie, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, is slated for release in 2016, and will be his first ‘Hollywood’ movie, starring his friend Jessica Chastain, Kathy Bates, and Susan Sarandon.
It is about the “vertical downfall experience” of a 29-year-old male Hollywood star at the “top of his game and acme of his career,” suffering the hardships of fame and invasions of his privacy. It sounds very “too much, too young.” One hopes Dolan has the confidence, wisdom, and survival chops to avoid such a precipitous fall.