Take Xavier Dolan seriously. His Cannes sensation (and Oscar-snubbed) “Mommy” affirms that the prodigal filmmaker behind succès d’estime “I Killed My Mother” and the epic “Laurence Anyways” has, at 25, finally grown up. In “Mommy,” Dolan wisely restrains his bravado and has never been more at home than with these three richly made characters: a scrappy and outrageously brave single mom, her smart yet deeply troubled teen with blond hair and behavioral problems, and the timid housewife with a speech impediment and secrets next door.
“Mommy” is an emotional workout with characters you simply don’t want to let go of, a trio of complex, beaten-down souls that live and breathe, however hyperbolically, as people in the real world. The film clocks in at almost two-and-a-half hours but could comfortably contain another hour as far as I’m concerned. Part of the film’s suffocating power lies in Dolan’s refreshingly unpretentious 1:1 aspect ratio, which frames the actors in intimate, up-close, and maybe even too-close, portraits.
And Dolan, who’s bummed the film didn’t crack the foreign Oscar shortlist, didn’t want to let go of these characters, either.
While his sprawling queer romance “Laurence Anyways” had its fleet of film crit champions at Cannes 2012, where four of the workhorse director’s five films have premiered, Dolan at last earned Competition status on the Croisette this past May, sharing the Grand Jury Prize with “Goodbye to Language” director Jean-Luc Godard—between them lies a 59 year age gap, which 2014 Cannes Jury president Jane Campion was well aware of in according this shared honor.
Dolan’s 2013 film maudit psychodrama “Tom at the Farm,” in which he also stars as a blond-headed libertine under the spell of his dead boyfriend’s sexily primitive older brother, skipped Cannes for Venice, and remains at large on the US distribution market. Why? The film, Dolan disclosed to me during our AFI Fest interview, simply hasn’t sold. Entertainment One distributed the film overseas and in Canada earlier this year to raves. But “Tom” is a sore subject for Dolan.
His impeccably pretty, first two films “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats” postured a bold new talent in terms of pure visual derring-do, but they strained for material cleverness over actual psychological substance. But Dolan is at the height of his powers behind the camera rather than in front of it. He draws astounding portrayals from his “Mommy” cast: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement, whose knockout performance in “Laurence Anyways” nabbed acting honors at Cannes that year.
(Dolan, who’s now repped by CAA, recently announced that Kit Harrington of “Game of Thrones” will star opposite Jessica Chastain in his English-language debut “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” which Dolan teased in our interview.)
Are you overwhelmed at all by the awards attention you’re getting this year for “Mommy”? Though Canada submitted your first film, “I Killed My Mother,” for the foreign Oscar in 2009, this is on a much bigger scale than before.
Not overwhelmed. Honestly excited and I’m tired. I don’t sleep a lot, and when I do get to sleep, I can’t sleep.
How did it feel to share the Cannes Jury Prize with Godard back in May?
It didn’t feel like anything. I was extremely happy that we were winning something and I was excited about communicating these things to Jane Campion, and how I felt about her work. and it was really an honor for me. But I haven’t seen many Godard films and the ones I’ve seen have not left a very deep print in me. I saw “Pierrot Le Fou” and I loved it for like two hours and then I forgot about it.
That’s my favorite Godard film. But I don’t always respond to him either.
I was stemmed from another school of thought. If you ask me about that period of time, I will be talking about Claude Sautet. He was not especially acclaimed during his career, while he was actually alive, but he did maybe 10 or 11 films and they are basically all masterpieces. I think about how revolutionary Godard must have been back then but what seems revolutionary to me is how modern Sautet’s cinema can feel nowadays and how old Godard’s movies feel. I’m not taking anything away from him. Historically Godard is a hero, I get that. He’s just not my hero. I love actors. I love very classical, maybe even conservative good storytelling and narratives. I love emotions, I love big climactic crisis scenes and outbursts and his cinema is so cerebral. It doesn’t talk to me.
Well you are interested in characters, whereas he isn’t so much. His characters are less people than cyphers that he is using to say something particular about the world as he saw it at that moment.
He is the lead character in his films.
Going back to “Mommy,” how did you create this amazing dynamic between your three lead actors? Everything about their chemistry is so genuine.
It’s all of us together. It’s how the actors loved each other on set and how they loved their characters too, and how we were constantly rewriting the lines and everything. There is a constant dialogue not only between the characters but between everybody on set and I think that chemistry comes from the joy and the enthusiasm we all felt.
That’s very apparent in the movie.
We loved the story we were telling. We laughed a lot. It was a very happy, dynamic set. We could spend hours fooling around.
Is “Mommy” your favorite filmmaking experience?
Every movie is my new favorite experience so I gather that’s rather positive.
Well you have one experience that maybe isn’t your favorite, which is the distribution status of “Tom at the Farm.” I’m curious to know where this movie is and why it has not been distributed in the US.
I’m very happy with the experience on that set. “Tom” was where I met with my greatest ally, the cinematographer André Turpin. But I just don’t understand. It’s such a short film. It’s a psychological thriller. It’s not like it’s a big gay movie that no one can watch. I don’t really get it.
Right, it’s not explicitly gay. Though that is there, of course. It’s a shame that outside the festival circuit, American viewers haven’t been able to see this movie. It would find an audience, I think.
I don’t understand. I’m seeing all these movies that are politically engaged that you would consider a risk marketing-wise, and they have a broad release, or at least in all the biggest cities, and if [“Tom”] was only on VOD— but it’s just nothing at all. I’m asking my sales agent and he’s being very elusive about it. I have to understand.
You already have another film in the works, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” which stars Jessica Chastain. She fell in love with “Mommy” at Cannes and now you’re going to work together.
She also so generously talked about “Mommy” in the media and on Twitter. She’s just so generous to me and honest and, you know what, I had been, when we met, seeking actors and let’s be honest, Cannes had not yet happened and that was another ball game. Tthings have changed because there has been more exposure in all of this. When she wrote about “Mommy” on Twitter, I had been reaching out to people, waiting for like a year and a half. At this point when you have such a great artist like her who is not only passionate about acting, but passionate about other people, projects, who is educated, who is excited about all the aspects of filmmaking, and that person wants to work with you, I mean, you instantly want to work with her. And there was this great part, this important part in the movie where I thought I had never thought of her for “it” but it just made so much sense and now I’m just thinking about it every day. We’re going to have so much fun doing this. She’s a mega tricky villain. Like full-on bitch.
She’s great at that, but she hash’t had a real showcase to play bitchy. There are shades of that in “A Most Violent Year,” but it’s a more nuanced role.
I’m a fan of what she does and I can see all that she can do, but she has not played this part. It’s a very specific part. It’s sheer evil.
What else can you tell me about “John F. Donovan”?
Well it is a sort of reflection on Hollywood’s impact in the modern artist’s life, the actor’s life, the people from the industry. It’s a sort of take on how it affects privacy. But it’s not a satire. It’s more of a drama with a structured story of two different lives intertwined: the story of a very, very famous, new “it” boy — but not only “it” because we’re talking iconic, we’re talking new legend. This guy called John F. Donovan is beloved by his peers, admired, adulated, adored by the public, by the fans and approved by the industry and by the journalists. He’s a sort of immediate myth but he’s been having this secretive correspondence with a very young man, an 11-year-old actor-to-be in the UK and they have never told anyone about it, and the film is the story of a sort of an Icarus flight, if I can call it that, when the existence of the letters is revealed to the public and people make the most sordid assumptions, and how this man’s career, and life, completely collapse.
And where are you in terms of the production right now?
We’re casting right now. We’re in the midst of attaching people. Jessica has been our earliest person that we announced and we are on the verge of announcing more in the next days. I wouldn’t be ready to do this movie right now. I have to prepare. It’s like 75 days of shooting. We’re shooting in five countries. Okay, that was a lie. We’re shooting in five cities.
Does it feel strange to not be working now? I’m surprised you’re here in LA for as long as you are. You’ve skipped AFI every year because you were filming.
It does, it does. I have to be creative. I have to be completely attached to something soon. My hands are shaking. I’m always shooting. It doesn’t’ feel weird, to be honest, because right now I’m happy to talk to you. I’m up for this today. It’s going well, I’m happy. I’m in the LA sun. It’s not too much. But in some moments, there’s a lot of attention at the same time and a lot of attention to give and a lot of very quick exchanges — you can guess what sort of event I’m talking about. That is very consuming in terms of energy. And at one point, you, and I’m being honest, are lacking in imagination in how to address people’s comments. It’s a weird mix of fatigue and jet lag. I’ve been jet-lagged for six months now, though wherever I go, and wherever the time zone is, I don’t have, technically, trouble sleeping because I’m always tired. But there are exhilarating moments. It is an exhilarating time.
At a certain point, that level of exhaustion can become a transcendent source of inspiration.
True. You can use that odd energy or odd lack of energy as a sort of fuel. Usually I’ve always found that no matter how tired I was before doing a movie, a movie in itself brings its energy and you suck it up, you soak it in. And somehow this whole — you know, I had never had the chance to meet with the public and talk with the audience and do lots of Q&As. I never had that opportunity in the past and now I’ve been doing them in Stockholm, Paris, Lyons, Germany, Los Angeles, Mexico. It’s an experience that’s very rich and exotic and there are such a great plethora of meetings and encounters and conversations and it is a very crucial aspect of filmmaking, which is the response. And I’ve been missing out on this forever and now I’m doing it and I have to say it has an energy of its own, just like shooting a movie. I’m on my mark right now in that this is what I should be doing right now, and I’m enjoying it.
How do you feel about the possibility of ending up at the Academy Awards next year?
I would be very, very, very nervous. I would be very nervous of a very specific thing, which would be throwing up somewhere, on someone. This is the fear that I have. Stuttering, falling, having a lisp, having a blank, shaking, sweating, it’s all going to happen anyway. I’m afraid of throwing up.
It will endear people to you.
If I throw up?
Well, if you throw up on camera, that’s one thing.
That’s what I’m saying. I’m afraid of throwing up, which will happen if I win something in the future, which is very pretentious, but I’m still thinking of these things.