Friday, September 18, 2009

TIFF: Quebecer does more than Dramedy

MattCanada reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival

Two nights ago I saw J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), the Cannes hit from 20 year old Québécois director Xavier Dolan. The film was shown in the University of Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre, which is hands down my favorite venue for TIFF films. It is like a Frank Gehry version of an Opera House, which always makes me feel like I am about to view a classic in the making. I think for the first time the movie matched up to the theatre's atmosphere. Present at the screening for its North American premiere were director/producer/writer/star Xavier Dolan, the titular mother Anne Dorval, and the shockingly pretty François Arnaud, who plays Dolan's boyfriend. Dolan introduced the film in the most unusual way - by raving about Jacques Audiard's Un prophète, and telling the audience he hopes to make a film as affecting one day. He ended by saying 'but for now I am here with a film I am incredibly proud'.

Now onto the film itself:

Xavier Dolan in I Killed My Mother. He's the writer/director/producer/star.

J'ai tué ma mère is incredible: moving, hilarious, beautiful, and like many good art house films, more than a little endearingly self-indulgent. For me, the combination of comedy and poignant drama is one of the most difficult things to accomplish successfully. Truthfully, how many terrible "dramedys" have we all sat through thinking 'this isn't funny or touching, just obvious and over-earnest'? I often find the Scrubs-syndrome (comedy to maudlin in a second and a half) literally angering. In J'ai tué ma mère Dolan uses the comedy to diffuse the emotional pressure of the mother-son feuding. Not in a forced and awkward kind of way, but in an exagerated and sarcastic mode that, to me, seemed very unique. The comedy's natural laughs were derived from the absurdity and tragedy of everything.

One of my favorite bits has mother Chantal (Anne Dorval) screaming and chasing son Hubert (Dolan) through his school in one of the tackiest outfits this side of Bob Mackie. The scene is tragic, but ultimately had the whole audience in hysterics. This successful mix of humour and pathos is really a tribute to the skills of the actors: Dolan, the pin-up stoner boyfriend Arnaud, caring teacher Suzanne Clément, and especially Anne Dorval as the mother. If there was any justice in the world Dorval would be nominated and win the Best Actress Oscar for this role. Her performance is nothing short of a revelation. The scene where she loses it on her son's principle is showstopping, but every moment Dorval is onscreen is flawless. Like fellow Quebecer Marie-Josee Croze in The Barbarian Invasions a few years ago, this performance will almost certainly be overlooked by the Academy despite its calibre. More than likely, like Croze, she will get a consolation Genie Award (Canadian Oscar).

Dolan must be credited for the risks he took with this film. Not everything succeeds, but as a whole the film is rich and rewarding: technically stunning, liberal in its stylistic melange, and perfectly balancing the different tones the script requires. The black-and-white inserts, although cinematic and expertly shot, were a little too over-indulgent and remain the only thing I did not really love about the film. The shot composition was incredible and clearly point to Dolan as a fan of the New Wave and, in particular, Truffaut. This film for me was immensly enjoyable, but also signaled the emergence of a brilliant new director. Hopefully his follow-up will not be too long in the making.

J'ai tué ma mère continues in the wonderful tradition of intelligent and stylistically daring Québécois gay films like John Greyson's Lilies - Les feluettes and Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. Along with the Quebec connection, the film's directorial flourishes and the harmony of comedy and drama remind me of the best works of Pedro Almodóvar. I am still trying to process everything the film has to offer but I think it is a prime example of the how humour in gay culture derives from hardships and heartaches. This is so rare to find in gay films, which are usually either unrelentingly bleak or slapstick minded. J'ai tué ma mère is the first film in a long time to combine these perfectly.

There is more to say, but I'll finish by betting this will be Canada's foreign language film submission.



Ok, now i'm more excited. I thought C.R.A.Z.Y. was quite good and I was ga-ga for LILIES back in the day so, yes, more excited now.

Renaud G. said...

J'ai tué ma mère is an amazing movie. Hope you will enjoy it Nathaniel :)

UncleVanya said...

Taking the movies of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan out of the equation, "Lilies" is probably my favorite Canadian film.

But, I have now seen over 20 films here in Toronto, and “Un Prophete” still towers over everything I have viewed. In fact, it will be battling for my #1 spot of top films at years end. Others I have yet to mention are below:

Day 6 or 7 (I’m losing track of time and my senses due to lack of sleep).

Yesterday afternoon I saw the prolific Johnnie To’s (”Election”, “Exiled”) new actioneer, “Vengeance”. It stars Johnny Halliday (a one time french crooner) who plays a father seeking revenge after his expatriated daughter, grandchildren and son-in-law are brutally murdered by Hong Kong Triad thugs. “Vengeance” is structured similarily to Clint Eastwood’s, “Unforgiven” (but, with a sub-plot dealing with memory loss). Nevertheless, though visually pleasing and highly stylized, “Vengeance” ends up more akin to a Dirty Harry/Death Wish mashup with better choreography and cinematography. That is not to say that it is a complete failure. The film definately has it’s moments with quotable one-liners and an amazing battle/gunfight sequence that includes rolling bales of compressed garbage at a recycling site. But, in the end this is not classic To, in fact, it is instantly forgetable.

Earlier in the week I saw “The Damned United”, a film directed by Tom Hooper (”Longford”), starring Michael Sheen in another role of a real-life character: here, he is playing Brian Clough, a one time coach who takes the Leeds soccer team to uncertain victory in 1974, Britain. I have to admit that when I purchased my ticket for this film it was on a whim, because, at the time, I erroneously thought the film was going to be a documentary about the great 70’s punk band, The Damned. When I realized my mistake, I decided to give the film a chance. And, all I can say, now, in retrospect is that I will never understand Britain’s obsession with soccer. In other words, I really hated this boring, pretentious biopic.

I also took in a screening of one of the City-to-City films (featuring Isreali movies), “Life According to Agfa”, directed by Assi Dayan. The film is centered around a pub in downtown Tel-Aviv, and the patrons who frequent it. Shot in black and white, the film is endlessly bleak, so much so, that one gets the feeling that if this is an accurate portrait of city dwelling Isreali’s, well one wonders how they get out of bed in the morning.

Arkaan said...

Vanya, thanks for the warning re The Damned United. I love soccer, but Peter Morgan doesn't do it for me.

Is Lillies a French-Canadian film? It's in English (I know the play is French). It's quite a good movie.

Nick M. said...

Damn you, curators of the New York Film Festival.

Bill_the_Bear said...

"North American premiere"...surely you jest! (Toronto premiere, for sure.)

The film opened here in Québec on June 5th, and pulled in over $800,000 at the box office, through the week after Labour Day, which is not bad for a Québec film.

I have to say, though, that I was fairly disappointed with the film, which I had actually quite been looking forward to, since there aren't nearly enough good gay films in the cinemas.

Maybe it was because I'm over 50, but I found the constant bickering of a moody teenager and his kitchy mother rather off-putting. That, I found, pretty much drowned the humour for me.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to Dolan's next film, mainly to see how he does working with material which isn't so personal to him.

Sean said...

I can't believe he's 20 and done all that! God, do I feel inadequate...

UncleVanya said...

Is Lillies a French-Canadian film?

Yes it is Arkaan, directed by the extremely gifted, John Greyson, the man who set off the fire-storm at this years' TIFF by pulling his new film in retaliation to the "City-to-City" forum featuring Isreali films.

UncleVanya said...

It should also be mentioned that in 1996, "Lilies" won Best Picture at the Genies (Canada's equivalent to the oscars). Seeing that, same-sex marriage was inevitable and a no-brainer in only the second country in the world to recognize and sanction said unions.

UncleVanya said...

In fact, the change in the law would have passed without a whimper from Canadians. But leave it to a horde of religious freaks from the United States to bus themselves en masse to our Parliment buildings in Ottawa (for the most part pretending to be outraged Canadians). These idiotic and obese people need to understand the meaning of the term, "sovereign country". Oh well, you can't choose your neighbours, unfortunately.

UncleVanya said...

It's like living next door to Gladys Kravitz!

davidm said...

Your prediction was correct.

Today Canada announced that J'ai tué ma mère is its choice for consideration in the foreign language film category.