Much has been made about Xavier Dolan’s age. I Killed My Mother, written when he was 17 and shot two years later, demonstrates the kind of phenomenal precociousness that publicists adore, and the film’s success at Cannes—an eight-minute standing ovation and three Directors’ Fortnight awards—only confirms the debut director’s movie-made mythos.
As Dolan has explained, however, the pressure to complete the film before he was 20 was due less to ambition than the instinct to keep alive the rush of adolescent angst that inspired the project. Shot in his mother’s tchotchke-filled home in Montreal, the film’s looming expiration date was compounded by the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, and it’s what makes I Killed My Mother especially compelling.
Unlike teen dramas such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, which, from the farther reaches of adulthood, attempt to recapture something of those turbulent years, Dolan’s still there, speaking directly from his experience. His age matters because it gives him access to that fragile, fleeting moment before a child breaks away from his mother, the pain of which, as the film reminds us in uncompromisingly bitter fights and tense close-ups, is all too easily dulled through distance. I Killed My Mother may be touched by the brashness of youth, but it’s guided by a sensitive, self-assured filmmaker who’s able to go where others cannot tread.
There are signs, to be sure, of Dolan’s inexperience. I Killed My Mother is stylistically mercurial, cutting abruptly from the black-and-white YouTube-ready confessionals of Hubert Minel (Dolan) to stark, symmetrically framed scenes of awkward pauses, stray bits of baroque fantasy (one of which casts his mother as a nun crying solemn tears of blood), and liberal use of speed-ups and slow-downs of the action. The film is uneven and sometimes emotionally off-key, as with an unexplained gay-bashing incident late in the film. But timid it’s not. Dolan’s vision, however distracted, remains strong, and it’s not surprising that the film’s most striking sequence, a lyrical montage of Hubert and boyfriend Antonin (François Arnaud) dribbling paint onto a wall and then having sex on a drop cloth, was edited by Dolan himself. As a writer, director, producer, and actor, he throws himself into the film’s disjointed spaces, highlighting the ways in which multiple and contradictory states can be inhabited simultaneously, from Hubert’s unbearable self-indulgent whining to his nostalgic retreat to a seaside childhood home, captured in 8-mm tinged pink with age. Dolan deserves further credit for his restraint in portraying Hubert’s relationship with Antonin. While I Killed My Mother could very well have become a moralistic coming-out fable, Dolan wisely maintains his focus on the film’s central couple, Hubert and his mother Chantale (Anne Dorval).
Despite the title, there’s no crime here. Unlike the cataclysmic matricide of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, taken up in estranged terms in Werner Herzog’s oddity My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, I Killed My Mother is determinedly quotidian, albeit suffused with betrayal and disappointment. Chantale, whatever we may think of her gaudy taste (some of the film’s best comedic moments come from her literally wild faux fur ensembles), is not the worst mother in the world, and sometimes, when she’s fiercely defending her son to his haughty boarding-school principal, she’s truly admirable. In the midst of the film’s arguments and disavowals, it’s easy to lose track of its dramatic core, which is less about adolescence than moving past it. “I love you,” Hubert tells his mother late one night. “I’m telling you so you won’t forget.” Though the fighting inevitably resumes, the unexpected tenderness of these words lingers on. Dolan knows that as Hubert passes into adulthood, this moment will seal itself off. Its intensity will fade, leaving behind just a few words and images, tokens to remind us of, but also to shield us from, the searing pain of the too-recent past.