Xavier Dolan: Enfant Wonderful

George Griffiths /
Feb 28, 2017 / Film & TV

Some people think that Xavier Dolan is either a genius or a bit of twat. Sometimes both. Sometimes you can’t be one without being the other. 

They see the French-Canadian auteur as something of a troublesome figure in film. His rise was startlingly quick; his debut film I Killed My Mother, one of the most visceral and exciting debuts by a director this side of the century, premiered at Cannes to an 8 minute standing ovation and he was quickly a name on the lips of people in all the right circles. He was just 20-years-old, having written the film when he was 16 and financed it mainly through his earnings as a child actor. 

Since his debut 8 years ago, Dolan has worked hard to consolidate his reputation as one of foreign film’s most premiere voices; from the realism of the semi-autobiographical I Killed My Mother to the guttural snarl of perhaps his greatest work so far, 2014’s Mommy, Dolan’s films are notable for both their emotional honesty and biting dark humour.

The eye of the storm, however, is undoubtedly Dolan himself. As his films have attracted acclaim, so has the director attracted international attention and, as often happens, scrutiny too. 

It’s very easy to categorise Dolan as an enfant terrible; who finds tremendous (if not unexpected) success, who is unorthodox, innovative and avante-garde, a genius who rallies against the culture that ratified them. Dolan’s films are exciting because you never know what to expect; either with the manic passion and fury bottled within I Killed My Mother, or the malevolent menace and dark humour brewing under his latest him, It’s Only The End of the World, which has just hit UK cinemas.

He’s not just an uncompromising auteur (each film his vision, wholeheartedly and for better or worse) but, as turn of the century directors come, he’s unorthodox. His films aren’t littered with references to the great cinematic works of art, or his directing technique isn’t built upon homages from those who came before him. In fact, Dolan has always been open about his lack of cinematic knowledge; “I’m not that influenced by directors,” he once said. “I was inspired by Paul Thomas Anderson. It happened once. I don’t think to myself ‘OK, what am I going to do in my next film? Let’s watch some Murnau and early Scorscese,’ I’ve had limited exposure to movies.”

This either comes across as an entirely precocious being who is sure-footed enough in his vision to not seek inspiration from elsewhere, or the words of a self-indignant bourgeois brat. Maybe it’s unfair to categorise Dolan in this way at all, or maybe he’s all of these things wrapped up in an enigma. 

It’s Only The End of the World was seen last year, before its premiere, as Dolan’s homecoming; the prodigal son returning to the scene of his birth (in this case, Cannes) off the back of his biggest cinematic success (Mommy) and an unexpected international breakthrough (in 2015 he directed the blockbuster video for Adele’s monster comeback Hello, which broke the record for most views in 24 hours with 27.7 million). It should have been his crowning glory; but this time something was different. There was an icy reception to the film, the words ‘backlash’ would be too harsh, since Dolan himself did win the Cannes Grand Prix prize, but for once, people weren’t falling over themselves to applaud his work. It seemed something in Dolan snapped – he informed the press that he would not be debuting his next film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, at Cannes and his time at the festival was effectively over.

It’s a crying shame, because the film itself is not bad, if not exactly scaling the heights of his previous films, it’s a torte, tight and incredibly well acted film following Gaspard Ulliel’s gay, terminally ill playwright returning home to break the news of his diagnosis to his family. It’s a bit like the french August: Osage County. Marion Coitillard gives a stunning performance, as does Vincent Cassiel. It won’t win over UK audiences – most foreign language films don’t – but it does serve as a mighty epilogue to Dolan’s career on the foreign film circuit and his burgeoning English language debut which could seal, for once and for all, his status as one of cinema’s most pivotal and exciting voices. 

Major details about the upcoming project are scarce, but we do know it follows Kit Harrington as the titular actor, whose correspondence with an 11 year old fan (just announced to be played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay) are leaked by Jessica Chastain’s character, a newspaper columnist. The film will reportedly be set both during the scandal, as Donovan is accused of paedophilia, and 11 years after in the present day. Natalia Portman will star as Tremblay’s English mother, Susan Sarandon as Harrington’s mother and Kathy Bates as his agent. Adele is rumoured to pop in for a cameo appearance. It’s shaping up to be a particularly big deal, and Dolan has already spoken about a much-needed break in the shooting schedule of the film due to his workload. 

Xavier Dolan is an exceptionally talented film-maker. He, much like great directors before him, understands the human condition. Our rage. Our passion. Our sadness. To me, his greatest achievement remains Mommy; taking the fractured mother-son relationship at the heart of his guttural debut I Killed My Mother and turning it into a molotov cocktail of violence and uninhibited passion which is heartbreaking to watch and also hypnotising, you just can’t look away.

He is a genius, he is a wunderkid, but by far the most exciting thing about him is that his greatest work is yet to come. 

Words by George Griffiths

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