Xavier Dolan’s Hipster Dystopia

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J’ai tué ma re / Les amours imaginaires

Directed by Xavier Dolan

“Why was Cannes so awed by J’ai Tué Ma Mère,” one may wonder, after viewing Xavier Dolan’s angsty first feature. While baffling at first, the hype becomes more fathomable when considering the culture clash effect of the drama about a Longueuil-bred would-be hipster sporting a foppish, lop-sided hair-do and an overdose of Québec-accented charisma on the Quinzaine des réalisateurs. This exoticism, however, could not possibly have the same effect on a Montréal viewer for whom the suburban teenage gay dystopia is devoid of the parochial otherness-appeal that must have beguiled French critics.

The problem with Mère, apart from its too-close-to-home setting and constant navel-gazing is the general aesthetic, which so heavily informs the direction and visual style, and which is anything but original – Dolan borrows heavily from the likes of Wong Kar Wai and François Truffaut (recurrent use of slow-motion, atmospheric music, misunderstood teenage boy alienation). The grating self-admiration of the close-up black-and-white sequences of Hubert filming himself, spewing clichéd angst against his mother and against the evil, inhospitable world which fails to comprehend and accommodate his sensitive, poetically-inclined, suburban-teen soul is so overtly narcissistic, that it jars with Anne Dorval’s superbly nuanced and sophisticated role as Chantale, Hubert’s single mother. While self-conceit permeates every other frame, with the camera lasciviously gliding over Hubert’s cherubic face (he does have angelic looks), and his pretentious incarnation of a 16-year old drama-queen fails to entirely convince, Dolan’s on- and off-screen charisma nevertheless pulls off the heft of the film.

Dorval, as the kitschy middle-class mom, however, delivers a tour de force performance – a minutely detailed, quirky exaggeration of the uncool, kitschy mother that every teenager dreads having. And that seems to be the core of Hubert’s seething resentment and unbridled disgust – not his mother’s lack of loving (in one of the most touching scenes, she throws a fit over the telephone when the head of Hubert’s boarding school hints that her son needs a father-figure to “ward off” his nascent homosexuality) but her utter lack of stylishness and bad taste. One gets the impression that if she dressed better, lived in a hipper neighbourhood, and had some notion of interior design, the film would have no reason for being.

Fast forward a year, Hubert is transposed into Francis, the Mile-End hipster par excellence he yearned to be, and style utterly usurps substance in Les Amours Imaginairess barebones narrative. In this surfeit of good looks and pastiche, Dolan incarnates a slightly more adult Francis, still gay, still falling for cloyingly blond, depthless boys out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.

To Dolan’s credit, the female lead Marie, played by Monia Chokri, and supporting female characters are sardonic, hilariously neurotic and imperfect. Their earthy looks serve as a fine foil for their stylish presence and razor-sharp performances. The least credible thread of Amours is the instant obsession Francis and Marie, both spirited, witty and sensitive, are saddled with over the bland, conventionally pretty Nicolas whom they meet at a dinner party. Of course, this is at the core of the film’s intent – vizualising the inexplicable trajectory of desire and the futility of bringing reason into the equation.

Some themes and visual elements from Mère recur here – the emphatic, fetishistic use of slow motion, vintage pop on the soundtrack, the transporting of city dwellers into the countryside with dramatic results, the simply improbably gaudiness of Dorval’s mother characters.

The tone, though, is rather different – where Mère was dark, oneiric and plangent, Amours is sardonically tongue-in-cheek and occasionally touchingly wistful. Disillusionment and sarcasm confer a more grown-up, detached ethos. Visually, Dolan’s slick art direction, while still relying on beautifully composed autumnal tableaus, is much more flamboyant, notable for the luxuriant hues of Marie’s outfits and the unabashed visual deification of Nicolas’ physique.

There is no doubt that Dolan is a talented multitasker –he writes, acts, directs, edits and art directs. In the end, stylistic distinctiveness and humour gloss over the minimal storyline, making for a very watchable, very good-looking film. Actually, if one word were to sum up Dolan’s films so far, “good-looking” would provide the handiest summation.

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