I Killed My Mother (2009, dir. Xavier Dolan)
If you look up the many articles and interviews about Xavier Dolan, you will likely get a picture of an arrogant young artist. These would not be wrong, but I would challenge that this portrayal is negative particularly in cinema. Dolan represents a strong, re-interpretive Millennial energy that was inevitable in film. In the same way, the French New Wave and the iconoclastic American 1970s filmmakers made their mark in the form; Dolan is doing that same type of work. Does he indulge? Damn straight he does. But I challenge anyone to find a single auteur who doesn’t indulge constantly.
Dolan’s first feature, I Killed My Mother is the story of Hubert Minel (played by Dolan), a 16-year-old gay man, still closeted to his mother and who engages in the most vicious arguments and conflicts with this central caretaker. Dad stepped out when Hubert was seven and left Chantale, the mother (Anne Dorval) to raise the boy on her own. Hubert is two months into a relationship with a classmate and looking towards a career in the arts, encouraged by a supportive teacher (Suzanne Clément).
Dolan is a filmmaker influenced by the medium. No moment in I Killed My Mother is simply a moment; they are accented by flourishes of style from Goddard-like framing (off center and with both conversants in the frame), slow motion almost from a perfume ad, black and white confessional close-ups, and myriad of other touches that add emotion to a relatively typical story of parent-child conflict. He also knows the importance of establishing character through setting, as seen in the very opening close-ups of his mother’s tchotchke-filled home. We also learn volumes about her through her hairstyle, clothing, even the manner in which she eats breakfast. And all this if before she even has a modicum of dialogue.
While Dolan is the composer and conductor, Anne Dorval as Chantale is the star player. It would have been very easy for Chantale to slip in caricature, but Dorval does gritty work to keep the character faceted and obscured. In moments of high tension, she will begin to follow the same type of script I imagine all of us remember from our adolescence, which is underscored by Hubert calling her out on this same repetition. She shuts him down in the same manner that frustrated us all and drove many teenagers to those primal, guttural ARGHs! There is a moment near the end of the film where her role as a single mother is blamed as the reason why Hubert is struggling academically and exhibits such rebellious behavior. This is the moment where Dorval lets Chantale crack through the thickly layered makeup and sequined floral outfits. Chantale’s love for her son is beyond the question of outsiders, and she makes that known.
Dolan made I Killed My Mother at the age of 20 and has not tried to hide the fact that it is heavily biographical. He has stated that this is a film he couldn’t have waited decades to make, that it needed the raw emotion of being only steps away from adolescence. And he is completely right. A forty-something making the film in deep retrospect would have let nostalgia slip in between the cracks. There is no wistful memory manifesting falsified beauty here. Through the ugliness of this relationship, we see Beauty and Love. We don’t fight and scream with this level of fervor at people we hate, the type of anger glimpsed in the film born out of intense love and need. It is the attempt to communicate love but failing to do so because the language does not possess the vocabulary to do so.
Hubert states in one of his bathroom confessionals on camera that he doesn’t love his mother like a mother, but he loves her nonetheless. During a late night conversation, Hubert fueled by ecstasy and barging home full of elation to speak to Chantale; he states, “I love you. I am telling you this so that you won’t forget.” This is the moment where the nature of the relationship changes, not profoundly, but both characters redefine the bond. Hubert is no longer the dependent glimpsed in the Super 8 home movies at the old house by the lake. He is an individual coming into his own, intellect, a sexual being, a partner in a relationship, developing complex ideas and emotions. Chantale is reticent to accept that, but by the end of the film, they come to an unspoken understanding. Their relationship will never be what they both remember and wish it could be, something new will form and in that they will find a place for their love.