It sounds like the premise of a Duplass brothers movie: Two lifelong dude pals, now approaching their late 20s and heading in very different directions, are convinced to make out as part of someone’s dumb student film; privately, but profoundly, the experience unlocks something at the heart of their friendship. In fact, it was the premise of a Duplass brothers movie (or at least a movie starring a Duplass brother).
Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” and Xavier Dolan’s new “Matthias & Maxime.” It’s a world of difference as clear but crossable as that between male friendship and male intimacy; gay panic and gay desire. Both films compellingly test the electric fence that runs along the parameters of heteronormative behavior, but only Dolan’s embraces the full seriousness of its story prompt.
In many ways the aging enfant terrible’s most grown-up movie to date — and certainly a return to form after the non-stop hostility of “It’s Only the End of the World” and the unmoored idol worship of “The Life and Death of John F. Donovan” — “Matthias & Maxine” is a touching but imbalanced drama starting where “Humpday” ends, and leverages their one shared idea into a true and tender portrait of sad boy self-discovery. Mishandled detours abound, and Dolan’s focus continues to waver even as his emotional sensitivity is sharper than ever, but his latest film still offers a generous corrective to a society of men who’ve been conditioned to think that it’s safer to burn down their bridges than take a peek at what might be waiting for them on the other side.
Dolan, a deeply affecting actor who’s often threatened to shelve his auteur career in favor of more time on screen, directs himself as Maxime, a hard-knock Montreal native who’s got a bit of a Good Will Hunting thing going on (the Affleck/Damon classic is but one of many pop culture references in a film that namechecks everything from “Game of Thrones” to “Dragonball Z,” and includes the immortal line: “Your mom is so fat that her Patronus is a Burger King”). The only difference is that Maxime doesn’t have any special genius to balance out his woes.
On the contrary, he’s got an absent brother, a physically abusive recovering addict of a mother, and a port-wine stain that starts at the edge of his right eye and splotches down the side of his face like he’s always crying blood. That last detail — like the soft-spoken character’s ambiguous sexual orientation — is both omnipresent and yet so infrequently mentioned that you start to see right past it. It helps that he spends most of the movie hanging out with his closest friends, a rowdy and eccentric bunch who don’t have any unspoken secrets between them. At least not yet.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Maxime’s sexuality is still a mystery to himself. Other than a quick shot of him staring at a straight couple on a billboard advertisement and flicking out his cigarette as though they were taunting him, his queerness is solely defined by his dynamic with Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), a handsome, married banker type who’s threatening to outgrow their group of rowdy bachelors. Funnily enough, that threat seems to assume new urgency after a house party in the Québécois countryside ends with Matthias and Maxime sucking face as part of an “impressionistic yet also expressionistic” short that a friend’s little sister is making for school.
Dolan cuts away just as their mouths are about to meet; when the story picks up a few months later, Maxime is 12 days away from a semi-permanent move to Melbourne. It’s a transparent attempt to avoid the questions that have stalked both he and Matthias since that fateful night, just as they seem to confront everyone (in some form or another) on the brink of turning 30: Who am I, and what if I pretend to be someone else?
Dolan, who’s just turned 30 himself, has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about his own specific answers. From the opening shot of he and Freitas bro-ing out at the gym, to Maxime’s raw and exposed final moments, the director’s performance is heavy with the weight of personal experience. He’s sullen and searching in a way that feels sublimated into every zoom of André Turpin’s handheld 35mm camerawork, as Maxime is the more openly wounded of the title characters; Matthias, by contrast, seems to be haunted by a hesitation that he’s experiencing for the first time, and his path towards some kind of self-acceptance is a bit more traditional. At the same time, it’s also arrestingly undefined, as Dolan never so much as implies a gay/straight binary; without tiptoeing around the carnal desire that percolates between the lead characters, he approaches sexual attraction as a lens through which to see a wider array of personal dilemmas.
Sometimes far too wide a lens. None of this movie feels amateurish or unmotivated, but virtually everything on the periphery of its main plot manages to detract from what’s going on between Matthias and Maxime. The latter’s mother is violent in a way that feels like a half-committed echo of “Mommy,” and only guilds the lily of Maxime’s anguish. “Beach Rats” star Harris Dickinson shows up as an attractive client who Matthias has to schmooze for a while, but the character lands like a misbegotten cross between Machine Gun Kelly and a Canadian stereotype, and his scenes feel like a cheap caricature of the sensitive movie happening around them. It’s as if Dolan fails to realize how much life he gets out of Matthias and Maxine’s other friends; how much they’re able to fill out the picture on their own.
Over time, Dolan starts compensating for that cartoonishness by blanketing the rest of the drama beneath a funereal chill; a bleakness that he punctuates with occasional needle drops that range from the wonderfully unironic (Britney Spears) to the safely effective (Phosphorescent). Dolan doesn’t always find the right groove, but it’s nice to hear that he still puts together a shoot-for-the-moon soundtrack like every emotion is the one that will last forever. In a film with an erratic structure that often works against it — that’s wound too tight by its ticking clock of a story, and doesn’t resolve with the oomph needed to sell its tear-jerking climactic scenes — the music can often be counted on to come to the rescue. Even if “Matthias & Maxime” resolves into something more sincere than it is involving, Dolan’s film makes the case that a little sincerity can go a long way, especially between two men who are dangerously close to opting for a lifetime of regret over a moment of unabashed honesty.
“Matthias & Maxime” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.