Movie Review – I Killed My Mother

I Killed My Mother (2009, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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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.

Cosmos (2015, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)

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This was probably one of the most French movies I’ve seen in a long time. The final film of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, the film tells the story of Witold, a law school dropout obsessed with writing a garishly romantic novel. He and his friend Fuchs end up at a rural inn run by a family just as crazy as our protagonist. Mrs. Wojtys is prone to outbursts of screaming only to freeze in place for a few moments after. Her husband Leon is an insane retired banker who is constantly twisting around language. Her daughter, Lena, becomes the focus of Witold’s obsession and comes to despise her pretty boy architect husband. He also holds an obsession with the housemaid, Catherette, who suffers from a lip deformity as the result of a car accident. Throughout the story is the ongoing mystery surrounding a bird found hung by its neck in the garden behind the house. The film meanders through the inn and the group all end up at a seaside cottage for the finale, chasing each other through the woods with lanterns.

To say Cosmos caused major confusion as I watched it would be an understatement. There is very little plot to the film beyond what I described. The majority of the picture consists of Witold exploding in wildly emotional monologues either while typing out his novel or lamenting and pining over the unobtainable Lena. I personally love films that challenge narrative structure and experiment, but moments of Cosmos went so far over the top it lost me. Scenes play as vignettes that don’t really add up to a meaningful whole.

The acting was wonderful due in part to how free and insane the characters were meant to be. Sebastian Genet as Witold did an incredibly convincing job of portraying a comically angsty poet/philosopher. He even made the stranger moments captivating enough to keep me engaged. Early in the film, he has a moment where he faces the camera and repeats the phrase “The savage power of stupid thought” over and over in a Donald Duck voice, looking like he is both on the verge of tears and bursting out laughing. In many ways, that phrase serves as the thesis statement of the film.

The film was packed with references to authors and figures of note in the arts. This becomes part of the word play with Witold referring to Sartre’s Modern Times, only to have Fuchs mistake it for the Chaplin film of the same name and proceed to perform the waddle of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The crazy old man Leon overhears a conversation about films and chimes in with “Spielbleurgh” (bleurgh being an expression of disappointment) which leads to a sort of pun competition between the man and Witold to plug bleurgh into a litany of other names (Bleurghman). I seem to recall another of Leon’s bizarre turns of phrase being “When an icicle mounts a bicycle it becomes a tricycle”. *Shrugs*

I was never bored by Cosmos but I was pretty strongly confounded for 90% of it. It is a movie that has a very strong forward momentum, that momentum is just leading you to nowhere, but that is on purpose. By injecting things like the hanging bird mystery into the film Zulawski almost seems to be daring you to try and make sense of this absurdity. The film does manage to capture the chaotic nature of creativity through Witold’s mad outbursts of typing as his novel becomes more and more about recording his angst. Most definitely a film that does not have wide audience appeal, but then not all films should. If you are wanting to be challenged and confounded Cosmos is certainly up to the task.

Tom at the Farm (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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Frenetic strings screaming. The sound of cornstalks furiously rustling. The blur of figure bursting through them. He enters a clearing in the field. We cut to a tight shot of his face. His bleach blond hair is a tangled mess. A thin line of blood travels from the corner of his lip diagonally down to his chin. He is suddenly thrown to the ground by a man exploding from the corn.

This sort of explosive moment is what Tom at the Farm is all about. It spend the majority of its run time letting tension crank up until the rope is tightly wound. When the tension is allowed to release we’re met with moments of raw brutality that are confusing and upsetting.

Brought to us by Quebecois director, Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm follows a young man (Dolan as the lead) as he journeys into the Canadian version of the Midwest. He’s headed there to attend the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he quickly learns that Guillaume was keeping a lot of secrets from him and his own family. He meets Agathe, the matriarch, who was lied to about her youngest having a fiance and Francis, the psychotic older brother who believes he can beat Tom into submission about keeping these lies going.

The first time Francis assaults Tom it is shocking and unexpected. But as their aggressive relationship continues it begins to take on a twisted psychosexual tone. At moments, Tom seems to become submissive and seeks out this continued violent treatment from Francis. And even Francis seems to desire Tom despite his protestations. When Tom finally attempts to leave he finds his car dismantled in the barn, stranding him in this desolate farm country. However, he finds himself comforted by the pastoral lifestyle, helping the birth of a calf, and then finding a moment to break down with emotion of what he participated in. In the midst of this tense psychological battle, Tom and Francis end up in an embrace after the latter reveals he took ballroom dancing lessons for a long lost ex.

The tone of the film is balanced somewhere between a lesser Hitchcock picture and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As the film nears its conclusion we discover a secret about Francis that illuminates his virulent anger and rage over Guillaume’s sexuality. The final shot of the film lets up contemplate the consequences of a moment when that rage overflowed. We don’t know what Tom believes about this revelation but we know it will inevitably shake up his world. While as unreal and absurd as the choices are that Tom makes when we, the audience, are likely shouting at him to just leave, these quiet final moments bring the film back to some semblance of a grounded reality.

Film Reviews – Amer and Sheitan


Amer
(2009, dir. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani)


Sheitan (2006, dir. Kim Chaprion)

I happened upon two very different, but equally stylish French horror films recently and these really show up the dull slasher flicks that American horror cinema has devolved into.

Continue reading “Film Reviews – Amer and Sheitan”

Shadows in the Cave: A Town Called Panic



A Town Called Panic (2009, dir. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)

This is a singularly unique French language animated feature that highlights something I have always loved in French animated movies. They are able to construct an elaborate and rich universe in a little over an hour. A Town Called Panic is a surreal and bizarre picture that is using a style of stop motion animation that is hard to describe. The characters are designed to look like toy figurines of cowboys, Indians, farmers, and other people. There are no moving mouths and no facial animations, simply very frenetic body movement and voice acting that nails the weirdness of this world.

The appropriately named Town Called Panic is a place where crisis is an everyday occurrence. In one large house lives Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Horse is the level headed of the trio and in love with a fellow equine who teaches music as the conservatory in town. Its Horse’s birthday, so Cowboy and Indian order 500 bricks to build a barbecue, however, a typing error makes that 5 million. The result is that their house is crushed by bricks. Every day they rebuild, but every night the entire house disappears. They stakeout one night and discover the weird truth behind things.

These are all hyperactive and manic characters, save Horse who keeps a level head. Part of the humor are Cowboy and Indian’s sudden leaps from passivity to complete and utter chaos. They scramble about trying to cover their errors but inevitably make things worse. There’s also a lot of humor from moments where you would expect characters to panic, that Cowboy and Indian are surprisingly unphased. Its comedy that doesn’t have any profound message or point, its akin to early Looney Toons where stories were given over to chaos and insanity.

The jokes never become vulgar or profane, so its a suitable substitute for typical maudlin family fare. In many ways I saw similarities to The Triplets of Belleville, both films created very specific characters that are richly detailed while using broad strokes. It’s also a statement against the current domination of CG animated features. At the end of the day, its not the bells and whistles an animated film can lay claim too but the creativity and inventiveness working behind the scenes.

Wild Card Tuesdays – The Dinner Game



The Dinner Game (1998, dir. Francis Veber)

You’ve no doubt seen the trailer or commercials for the upcoming Paul Rudd/Steve Carrell film Dinner for Schmucks. This is its source material, a very small and wry French comedy that, unlike the American version never makes it to the titular dinner. Instead, we get a very clever farce from the same director that brought us La Cage Aux Follies and many other French comedies brutally remade by American studios. I’m beginning to think studios simply wait around for him to release a film so they can rush to produce a butchered remake. While not the kind of funny the American remake is shooting for, The Dinner Game will make you laugh through clever wordplay and increasingly convoluted misunderstandings

Pierre Brochant is excited about the weekly “idiots dinner” held by he and his businessmen friends. He comes upon Francois Pignon, Finance Ministry employee (think IRS agent) whose obsession is building landmarks out of matchsticks. Brochant sees this man as the perfect idiot to bring along with him. However, his wife has left him and he has injured his back on the golf course on the same day he is to take Pignon to the dinner. The squat little man arrives, thinking Brochant is offering him a book deal about his matchstick constructions. Over the course of the evening, Pignon helps Brochant makes fake phone calls to track down his wife, mistakes the wife for the mistress, and brings on of his auditing buddies over to help out, unwittingly revealing some shocking infidelities. The film appears to be heading down a maudlin path when it returns to its comedic elements in a very clever way.

Pignon is a very endearing character. He has had his wife leave him and wants to legitimately help Brochant, but he possess a short term memory and care barely retain the simple plans they hatch when calling people they believe Brochant’s wife is with. Jacques Villeret plays the role of Pignon and manages to keep him from becoming a dolt. He’s a clever, sensitive, eager to help simpleton and the audience sighs with relief when we realize he won’t be subjected to the cruel evening Brochant has planned. From what I have seen of Schmucks, I get the feeling Carrell is playing a much broader, less sympathetic version of this character and that’s a shame.

The Dinner Game plays like stage play. It’s one set with characters coming in and out, a perfect comedy of errors. Schmucks looks like it is uninterested in the simplicity of the original and is opting for complex set pieces involving outsiders that we don’t sympathize with but mock. The overly sentimental finale that the original avoids feels all but inevitable for the American remake. The irony here is that The Dinner Game emotionally earns that ending if it wants, while I suspect Schmucks will be so mean spirited that when it comes to that “our hero learns a lesson” moment it will come off as ludicrous.

Criterion Fridays – Summer Hours



Summer Hours (2008, dir. Oliver Assayas)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier

It’s always refreshing to see a film made for grown ups. Too often American dramas dumb things down, maybe out of a lack of talent in the writer or maybe a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence. Here director Assayas looks at the strange dynamic of being both the adult child of a parent and a parent to your own children. In one position you are still looked on as an infant or adolescent and in the other you are the supreme authority. This difficult place is used to examine how we deal with death and responsibilities placed on us by the dead. The whole thing is a very naturalistic, quiet piece of cinema that is rewarding and ambiguous. The answers we receive will be as open ended as the characters in the film, and like them, we have to learn to happy with that.

Helene has just turned seventy-five and has come to terms with the fact that her life is coming to an end. She takes her eldest child, Frederic aside and explains to him how the family’s vast art collection and the country home they grew up in is something she wants him to maintain and make sure her grandchildren can bring their children to. Helene dies soon after her children make their last visit to the house, all of them caught up in busy lives: Frederic in Paris, Adrienne in America, and Jeremie in China. Frederic comes together with the siblings who all want to sell off the artwork and the house as they don’t have the funds or time to maintain the property. Frederic concedes and they go about cataloging the contents of the home. Frederic maintains a sense of guilt as he watches the promise to his mother fade away.

Summer Hours is a film that will demonstrate how programmed you have become by cliched Hollywood plot devices. There is a never chance anything of major conflict with occur, no one is going to explode in an emotional rage and there will be no ironic twist of fate. This is a very relaxed film about a family and the compromises we all make as a part of families. Frederic never really puts up a fight and its hard to be angry at him. As much as his mother loved the collection her uncle had amassed and she inherited, it is almost impossible for her children to maintain it. What is interesting is how Frederic’s teenaged daughter, Sylvie feels a strong emotional connection to the country house. The opening scene is of her and her little cousins running through the woods, playing, being children. The final parallels this, but with a more bittersweet tone as it is the last time she will be there.

This is not a film that has a message for you. Assayas simply tells the story of these three adult siblings, lives without melodrama, dealing with the aftermath of the death of a parent. What you are meant to get out of the film is what ever you want. So often in American mainstream cinema scripts are locked into formulaic beats and its all about hitting certain plot notes by certain page numbers. Here no one is rushed along, no one reveals some deep dark secret. Its very refreshing, and beautiful, and ultimately stays with you a lot longer than a script that sloppily goes didactic. If you are looking for an incredibly thoughtful film that lets you decide what you want it to mean, then I think you’ll be in for a treat with this one.