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His Soul to Make: The Music Video Stylings of Xavier Dolan

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“To me, music is the soul of the film,” Xavier Dolan said in an interview with Slant Magazine in 2012, just as his third feature Laurence Anyways was about to makes it premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. More than most directors, it seems, Dolan seems to blur the line between film and music video, bringing the two together tastefully, offering interludes that are just as important to the whole of the film as any dialogue scene. These scenes, perhaps, allow Dolan to exercise his more indulgent side, but they give his films a gorgeous full bodied appeal. Also giving him the opportunity to experiment with technique, Dolan brings an inventiveness and assuredness to both forms unlike any director.

The 25 year-old director has taste, certainly, allowing the music he chooses (from The Knife to Celine Dion, from Duran Duran to Rufus Wainwright) to ebb and flow with the often towering emotions within his films. He can play into the melodrama using classical music, from the likes of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, or do so in a more contemporary sense with Diane Dufresne and The Cure. But, while a carefully curated soundtrack is one thing, utilizing that soundtrack to its full extent and having the film itself briefly transform into something else is another thing entirely. So, here are my five favorites:

5. “A New Error” – Moderat in Laurence Anyways (2013)

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The Berlin originated music project/experiment finds itself in a scene where Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) reunites with her lover Fred (Suzanne Clement) after years of separation and everything, essentially, makes sense to them, if ever so briefly. They want to try again. A great fan of slow motion cinematography, Dolan has articles of luridly colored scarves rain from the sky, surrounding the couple as they walk forward. Fred looks back into the camera briefly and turn back forward, as she is embraced once again by Laurence. The reunion has been a long time coming, essentially, and when Dolan cuts back to them as a two shot, the scarves are gone. It’s an odd metaphor that seems vaguely silly out of context, but in the film, Moderat’s electronic reverberations carry the scene, its waves like the heartbeats of the film’s protagonists. Dolan’s eye for framing and symmetry is in full flow, as the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio takes advantage of giving it a nearly expressionistic feel.

4. “Windmills of Your Mind (Les Moulins de Mon Coeur)” – Kathleen Fortin in Tom at the Farm (2013)

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Shot incorrectly, watching Tom (Dolan, with witheringly wheat colored hair) drive for three minutes would be dull. The addition of a song, “Windmills of Your Mind” no less, would not help. And yet, Dolan doesn’t frame the scene like the music video technique he’s inclined to use for other scenes, but it nonetheless works as a prelude to the film. Fortin’s strong vocals build up tension as one sees Dolan lose his grip. Dolan’s jumpcuts feel somewhat voyeuristic in a way, despite the ostensible intimacy of being in the car with Tom. There’s an observational quality to the scene, especially as it begins as a foreboding aerial shot of Tom’s car driving in the middle of nowhere. Also interesting about this scene is that the rhythm of the music does not dictate the editing style, Dolan instead using a slightly more freestyle method, making the scene even more evocative. (Bonus: This observational style is used again at the end of the film, in which scenes of Montreal at night from the car are used as Rufus Wainwright’s telling “Going to a Town” is used.)

3. “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” – Dalida in Heartbeats (2010)

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The young auteur’s Heartbeats is oft cited as his most immature, to which I always reply, “Er, that’s the point.” His sophomore feature allowed Dolan to experiment with form a bit more, allegedly mixing a cocktail made from numerous cinematic forefathers; and thus, critics call it indulgent. Sure, it is, but, again, it’s the point. The lives of three twenty-somethings in Montreal, two of which are irrevocably enamored of the third, are framed in a realistic manner: kind of catty, selfish, and immature. But to reduce the film to that is to discredit Dolan who, though certainly young, is far slyer than some would like to admit. The Italian cover of “Bang Bang” by Dalida is itself a velvety track to include in a film so flush with emotions; to shoot the track it in slow motion, as we watch Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia) prep to ogle at Nicolas (Niels Schneider) is incredibly clever and, in a way, wise. For those two, the world slows down and every moment in their heads matter. It is a lushly shot sequence, quietly and subtly revealing, even subjectively, how self-involved the characters are. But it is oh, so gorgeous to watch.

2. “Viva la Fête” – Noir Désir in I Killed My Mother (2009)

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Dolan’s only sex scene thus far (haven’t seen Mommy yet), it is done with a certain kind of confidence which is, like Dolan’s work in general, impressive for someone his age. As Hubert (Dolan) and his boyfriend Antonin (François Arnaud) splatter the office walls of the latter’s mother, they take a moment to exploit the heat of… throwing paint at walls. Such adolescent passion is understandable, but it’s the mix of both slow motion and sped up cinematography which makes the scene unique. Dolan has a singular way of letting the audience into the headspace of a character, and this combination of playback speeds wonderfully articulates how the world speeds up and/or slows down when one is in the throes of physical affection. With equal importance, we see Hubert destroy his own mother’s room after receiving a letter sending him for another year at boarding school. Unbridled passion and emotion manifests in two different manners here, and it’s crucial to the film to witness both, especially within the same space.

1. “Pass This On” – The Knife in Heartbeats (2010)

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Sure, Entry #2 is sexy, yet, the implication of sex feels significantly more erotic, as demonstrated by the strobe effects, slow motion, and the sounds of The Knife. In this manner, Dolan fully combines traditional film techniques with music video ones. Music does dictate editing, but so does the strobe light. One is as entranced by the scene as Francis and Marie, staring deeply at their Adonis-esque friend, triggering shots of Michelangelo’s David and erotic illustrations by Jean Cocteau. It’s ostentatious, obsessive even. With a song so fervent, and shots of red and blue in the film, the hypnotic scene is enough to make your heart skip a beat.

But, Wait, That’s Not All… “College Boy” – Indochine

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In 2013, Xavier Dolan directed the music video for Indochine’s “College Boy”. It would be his first foray into using the 1:1 aspect ratio he would later put into play for Mommy. Dolan’s mise-en-scene has always been, to me, fairly impressive: never overbearing in and of itself, yet everything serves a function. 4:3 tightened it up in Laurence Anyways, and aspect ratio morphed midscene in Tom at the Farm to play up tension between Tom and Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) from 1:85 to 2:35. So, despite the formal play, Dolan’s visual storytelling is still at work, relaying a tale of school bullying and martyrdom. It’s becomes increasingly graphic and disturbing, as everyone in the school turns a blind eye to the boy (Antoine Pilon, who also stars in Mommy) being brutalized. Dolan again earns his title as enfant terrible with such provocative video, and it seems incredibly right that a director whose filmography is filled with various musical flourishes should finally make “an actual music video”. And, certainly, he delivers, stepping back from the kind of ostentation he was once accused of and pushing the limits of his directorial style.

Other films use music, other films have montages, but few films, to my knowledge, use film and music in the same way that Xavier Dolan does. The music he chooses nearly acts as narration to what the characters are feeling and thinking and his camera amplifies that by giving the viewer a subjective look into those ideas. Even making a scene walking down a school hallway iconic (Laurence coming out to the school in her way to Headman’s “Moisture”), the Quebecois filmmaker just knows how to do it right. His films already engaging, filled with emotion and sensitivity. And then, blending images with sound, he gives his films a soul.


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