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

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 15, 2013 at 11:59AM

"I Killed My Mother" opens in U.S. theaters this week. Here's our review from 2009.
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A scene from Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother."
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."

In spite of its heavy themes, the movie manages to be unexpectedly funny throughout.

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.


This article is related to: Reviews, Xavier Dolan, J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother)