I had heard quite a bit about Xavier Dolan, whose short career - two films within two years is impressive, especially when many newcomer directors in Australia can find lapses of ten years or more between features (and they're made on sub-$1mil budgets, too!) - but I was typically cynical. A 22-year-old who wears thick-rimmed glasses, has hipster hair and makes films inspired by French New Wave? These were just ingredients for a maddeningly precocious filmmaker with a heightened sense of himself.
Mere minutes into his debut feature I Killed My Mother my guard was let down, and eventually eradicated altogether. Furthermore, by the end of Heartbeats I felt positively feverish in my adoration of the man. How is it that this 22-year-old has been able to write, direct, star in and procure financing for two films of such carefully constructed beauty? It's curious though, because each of his two films have similar strengths and weaknesses, and yet they don't feel like the work of a one trick pony filmmaker. I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats have such different rhythms and styles, yet are distinctly similar. Like the work of Pedro Almodovar, whose early work was never this polished (more a sign of the times, I suggest), they are easily seen as the work of the same man, but a man who hopefully has enough tricks up his sleeve to forge a career in this cruel business. That his films are only 90 minutes is the cherry on the cake!
I Killed My Mother is both the weaker and the stronger of the pair. It's perhaps too shrill - the screaming matches between Dolan's "Hubert" and Anne Dorvel's "Chantale" that punctuate the film are it's core, but take some time to adjust to - and travels around in thematic circles, but Dolan shows such strength behind and in front of the camera that it's easy to forget and just watch. He does such interesting things with cinematography and editing, plus I especially adored the specific attention he played to the costuming of his characters. Who can't identity with the embarrassment that Hubert feels whenever his mother parades around in one of her new "sexy" outfits or shows up at his school looking like an extra from Doctor Zhivago?
However, the moment where I thought that this guy was for real was the scene in which Dolan and Niels Schneider kiss in a neon-heavy nightclub, in slow motion, to the soothing guitar plucks and cooing vocals of Crystal Castles' "Tell Me What to Swallow". It's a truly stunning combination of visuals and music that proves to be one of the most heartbreaking moments I've seen for quite some time. Dolan attempts to do this again in Heartbeats as two friends watch their wannabe lover dance at a party, but it doesn't work to quite the same effect.
I Killed My Mother (with Crystal Castles) | Heartbeats (with The Knife)
Heartbeats, Dolan's second film, is a much more typical film - I could see it finding a far wider audience that Mother - but never less than the vision of a filmmaker that knows his craft. Obviously taking inspiration this time from the French New Wave (there is no bicycle seat, however) as well as Wong Kar-Wai, Dolan's second feature is a love triangle except the love isn't actually there. Funnily enough, I thought of that line before discovering that Heartbeats' original title translates as "Love, Imagined". Such a better title than the shrug of an English "translation" it currently has.
Still, Dolan does quite magical things with the craft here. Again, I loved the intricate details he made with the costume design and, this time, the production design. I can feel the time and thought that goes into each and every dud a character wears, but I really loved Heartbeats' choice of sets. Whether it be the cool cafe hang-outs of its young twentysomething characters or the personalised apartments they live in with specific markings on the wall and pain ripped off in telltale parts. It's fascinating to watch and see the thinking behind it all.
I was particularly impressed by the resolution of Heartbeats, since it said something both honestly devastating (the way people almost feel like they're begging for their crush to feel the same away about them as they do) and yet humourously cruel (that final scene!) Much like the circles his first film went in, Dolan curiously inserts footage of interview subjects being asked questions about past relationships that never quite work. While there is some particularly spot on dialogue in these scenes, they feel superfluous and like something telegraphed from a different film altogether. If there's an over-reliance on slow motion then, well, at least it's done better here than in anything Zach Snyder's laid his grubby little hands on in the last few years.
Still, with these two superb films Xavier Dolan (and not Caviar as my autocorrect was trying to tell me) he has instantly become a filmmaker to crave the next outting of. It's particularly nice to see an openly gay filmmaker and actor write very gay-oriented parts that don't call attention to themselves. These two films should very quickly become important and popular films amongst GLBT film watchers. They are cinematic as well as entertaining and thought-provoking with glorious acting (for all the praise I've given him, I haven't even mentioned how great of an actor he is!), technical aspects and truthful dialogue. Dolan kinda gets it; he gets how people talk, react, dress, groom, style themselves, interact and live, and it's nice to have a young filmmaker who is out there who does. Plus, the fact that he acts in his own movies and looks like this? Bonus!
I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats are still screening exclusively at ACMI in Melbourne until May 1.