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I KILLED MY MOTHER (review)

x_1dc2734eI KILLED MY MOTHER
Written and Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément 
 
Hubert (after a heated argument): What would you do if I died today?
Hubert walks away.

Chantale: I would die tomorrow.

The first time I ever saw Xavier Dolan’s debut feature, I KILLED MY MOTHER (J’ai tué ma mere, en francais), was on an airplane. Even within the confines of that tiny little screen embedded on the seat ahead of me, the film still shook me to my core. I was awoken to a new voice, a new talent that, at the time was exploding with promise, and who now, only five short years later, has proved beyond any doubt that he is the real deal, that he will eventually exceed anything we could ever have expected and that, long before his career eventually ends, he will be known as one of the greatest Canadian film directors to have ever lived. I gush, but as I haven’t been the least bit disappointed with him since he emerged with this film in 2009, I assure you that my admiration for the man has very little to do with his very handsome face.

Dolan was just 19 years old when he shot I KILLED MY MOTHER, 16 when he wrote it. Don’t let the provocative title fool you though; he isn’t speaking literally and no mothers are brutally murdered in this film. That said, the metaphor may be a far worse fate. Since her husband left when her son was much younger, Chantale (Anne Dorval) has raised the now 16-year-old Hubert (Dolan himself) alone. To call their relationship strained would be a gross misuse of the word. They are complete opposites and, through black and white confessionals, Hubert reveals to us how much he loves her, but that he cannot stand being her son. He is, to put it plainly, disgusted with her. Dolan introduces us to her with an extreme close up of her mouth, as she chews away on a bagel with cream cheese that gets all over her face. They proceed to get into one of many, many arguments and with each new fight comes another level of intensity and sheer volume. It would be hilarious, and sometimes it actually is, if it weren’t for how deeply sad it all is.

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I’ve had the privilege of meeting with Dolan on a couple of occasions and he once told me that writing dialogue is where his biggest screenwriting passion thrives. It may not be as evident to anyone who sees the film but who has never lived for any period of time in Montreal, Quebec, where the film takes place, but the nuances to the dialogue in I KILLED MY MOTHER are so sharp. Couple that with the brilliant delivery from both Dolan and Dorval and every scene between them comes alive in ways that might make you wonder whether or not these two aren’t actually related. Dolan also often chooses to frame his dialogue scenes in tight, static shots, in situations where the characters can’t simply get away from each other, like in a car or at a dinner table. This forces the focus to fall on the words being exchanged and the chemistry between the actors. Neither disappoints and both point to Dolan’s deep understanding of the complexities at play in these relationships.

Speaking of complexities, Dolan, who has said that I KILLED MY MOTHER is at least partly autobiographical, explores some very uncomfortable questions here. Just because people are directly related by blood, does not mean that they are capable of getting along. We all have our own personalities, and while those personalities are often shaped by our parents, they can still grow into their own unique forms. Those forms can sometimes clash with those that raised us and the internal conflict that can create for an adolescent is sometimes near impossible to resolve. Hubert wants to love his mother; he wants to be a good son to her. That said, he also suspects that this task may be impossible for him to perform. What he doesn’t understand is that this isn’t his fault, which in turn causes him to feel a great deal of guilt and grief over their relationship. At many times, it feels like Hubert and Chantale don’t see each other as people. As much as he doesn’t get that she is a person outside of their relationship, neither does she. She just wants him to stay her little boy forever.

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Any parent of a teenager knows that this is just not possible. Boys will grow up and they will be boys after all. In Hubert’s case, he is a boy that also wants to play with other boys. Dolan, a gay man himself, is very smart about how he weaves sexuality into I KILLED MY MOTHER. We don’t learn that Hubert is gay until his mother does, by accident, at a tanning salon. We may suspect it, just as I’m sure she did too, but it isn’t formally confirmed until half way through the film. It isn’t used for shock value though. Saving this information for later forces the issues between mother and son to remain focused on the natural tension that has been brewing between them for years instead of scapegoating his sexuality as the reason they don’t get along. As a gay man, Dolan must know that Hubert hiding his sexuality from his mother obviously has some influence on their relationship, but the fact that Dolan chooses not to hang the entire film on this one aspect of the character is truly inspired. This way, we still feel the tension surrounding what isn’t being said, but we also understand that their troubles were much bigger than that to begin with.

I KILLED MY MOTHER isn’t perfect. There are times when you can feel that Dolan is experimenting with the most creative way to present something, or that his influences are sometimes louder than his own personal voice. This doesn’t matter though, at least not to me. What strikes me most, and what still fascinates me about Dolan to this very day, is how devoid of ego his films are. He writes, directs and stars in I KILLED MY MOTHER, which is loosely based on his own experiences, and yet he never makes any decisions as a filmmaker that don’t serve the story above all else. Sure he looks great smoking a cigarette with his shirt off in black and white, but I never once feel when watching this or any of his other films that he is enjoying being looked at. In fact, if you take the opening shot of I KILLED MY MOTHER, a close up of Dolan’s eyes, as an indicator of his intentions, then I would venture to say that Dolan is far more concerned about what he sees then being seen.

I KILLED MY MOTHER will always be one of my favourite films, much to my own mother’s dismay.

5 sheep

 

Your turn!

How many sheep would you give I Killed my Mother?

 

4 Comments

  1. Looks like I’m NOT the only one obsessed with Xavier’s films!!!

    • Oh, not by a long shot, good sir. He fascinates me.

  2. Dolan is one hell of a filmmaker. I still can’t believe he was a teenager when he made this.

    • Agreed! And yes, definitely still surprising. So much insight into interpersonal relationships for someone so young. And he’s still young! Watching him progress as a filmmaker is very exciting.

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