Review: Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mother’ Marks the Birth of a New Talent

Review: Xavier Dolan's 'Mother' Marks the Birth of a New Talent

Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. “I Killed My Mother” opens in U.S. theaters this week.

Xavier Dolan’s “I Killed My Mother” marks the emergence of an
exciting new filmmaking talent. The Montreal actor, a mere 20 years old when he completed production on this debut,
displays a startlingly mature perspective on human behavior in his
triple threat position as writer-director-star. Since then, with his ambitious followups “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways,” he has showed a continuing fascinating with lavishly cinematic character studies, but neither of them match the contained brilliance of this first feature, which finally arrives in U.S. theaters after two years of legal battles. The equation of Dolan’s filmmaking career is finally complete.

The former child actor’s thespian abilities were never in doubt, and in “Mother” he directs himself in a moving performance that fits the intimate material. He plays Hubert, a gay
teen constantly at odds with his uptight single mother (Ann Dorval).
Although his story has been described as a coming out story since its popular debut at the
Cannes Film Festival in May (where it won several awards), Hubert’s
sexuality forms only one part of the equation. His maternal disdain
seems alternately trivial and profound, but always real.

READ MORE: Xavier Dolan’s ‘Mother’ Finally Coming to U.S. Theaters

The title
itself becomes a narrative device, toying with viewer expectations and
suggesting that it could turn to matricidal horror at any moment.
Fortunately, “Mother” has more legitimate concerns to focus on. Hubert’s
heated conversations with his well-intentioned mom contrasts with the
relative tranquility he brings to his relationships with other people,
including his easy-going boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), whose own
mother’s progressive, nonchalant attitude about her son’s dating life
drives Hubert to develop further disdain for his situation at home.

He
also forms a bond with his sympathetic schoolteacher (Suzanne Clement),
the only person capable of helping him understand the value of
unconditional family love. Yet Dolan lets the character waver back and
forth on that one. At no point in the movie does he outright reject his
mother, but he continually attempts to refine his understanding of her
importance to him. The dialogue glides through this constant
prevarication. “I love her, but it’s not the love of a son,” he says at
one point in a recorded video journal. “It’s a paradox, having a mother
you’re incapable of loving and incapable of not loving.”

But
Dolan’s script doesn’t merely rely on Hubert’s uncertain thought
process. Subtle visual touches introduce a sense of emotional
progression that elevates the movie to interpersonal lyricism. Hubert
writes brooding, downbeat poetry that appears on the screen as if
materializing out the character’s mind. Despite his spotty creative
ambitions, Hubert clearly possesses an active imagination. Dolan
occasionally cuts to evocative images, such as his mother
dressed as a nun crying tears of blood, that appear to represent
Hubert’s understanding of his insular world. They also hint at the more outlandishly expressive moments to come in his later work, but in “Mother,” Dolan doesn’t push it.

In spite of its heavy themes, the movie manages to be unexpectedly funny throughout, the stuff that makes us
laugh also gives us pause. One night, Hubert takes speed and confesses
his sadness to his abruptly sympathetic mother. In a later
scene, she unloads on the principal of his private school with a vulgar
rant that’s both hilarious and brutally honest. Dolan’s patient storytelling demonstrates an understanding
of the lasting impact a narrative can have when it revolves around
universally relatable concepts. “Mother” is about growing up while
coming to terms with one’s roots. In that regard, it’s the ideal means for Dolan to shift gears. For those intrigued by the later movies, the puzzle is now complete.

Criticwire grade: A

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Kino Lorber opens the movie in limited release today. Strong reviews may help it manage decent returns over the weekend, but mainly it should perform well on DVD, now that Dolan fans can find it no matter where they live.

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