Interview: Xavier Dolan
Shot in stylish slow-motion, the opening of Xavier Dolan’s transgender epic Laurence Anyways expresses exactly what it feels like to be conspicuous. Embodying Laurence’s point of view as he struts a powder-blue femme-suit down a Montreal street, the camera boldly confronts each fascinated and fearful face that turns to stare. Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” plays over the sequence, setting the tone for another impeccably selected, pulsating soundtrack from the Canadian wunderkind, in his latest and most ambitious film.
A lavish Nineties “period piece” that indulges in the aesthetics of baroque excess, melodrama, and music video, Laurence Anyways spans the decade that follows the tumultuous, episodic relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and his long-term lover Frederique (Suzanne Clément) as he completes the transition from man to woman. Following I Killed My Mother (09) and Heartbeats (10), the film boasts a running time just shy of three hours, and a boost beyond his famously modest budgets ($8 million instead of $800,000 for his debut).
In an onstage talk in March following the Museum of Modern Art’s screening of his feature films, Dolan credited the idea for the script to a van ride in 2008, when a forthcoming crewmember recounted the moment when her boyfriend told her he was—and needed to fully become—a woman. FILM COMMENT spoke with the ultraconfident Dolan, who had just finished shooting Tom at the Farm, on the eve of his 24th birthday.
I Killed My Mother
At MoMA you spoke about two different types of films: those you watch versus those you feel. Yours are very much the latter. A lot of the feeling and mood you create comes through your distinct visual style. Are you thinking in images as you write, or do the aesthetics form during shooting?
When you’re planning a sequence like the ball in Laurence Anyways, you need to think about that before shooting because you have a production designer who’s asking you questions and to whom you’re giving directions. But in terms of the finality of the visuals—I’m talking about frame, movement, light, motion—this really all happens on set, in the spur of the moment. You look at the angle of someone’s face, or the environment around you now that it’s dressed and populated by extras and actors. You see the whole picture, and ideas appear. It happens really fast. I want the frame to be symmetrical—I’m obsessed with symmetry—I’ll frame it and think: “All right, we’ve got a frame and a lens,” and it just happens.
The question of influence dominated the discussion at MoMA. You said that you’re influenced more by still images in magazines than you are by films.
What I’m trying to say is that I’m not that influenced by directors. I was influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson: it happened once. When I saw Magnolia I was shocked by the scene with Julianne Moore and the amazing frog rain at the end of the movie. It’s bigger than nature and I love bigger than nature in movies. But you know, I don’t think to myself: “OK, what am I going to do in my next film? Let’s watch some Murnau and early Scorsese.” I’ve had limited exposure to movies; I’m young and I only started watching films when I was 15, 16. I hate to draw this line, but I’m talking about “serious” movies. Before then it was all very commercial. Whatever happened to be playing in theaters I would go see with my Dad or my mother or my cousins, like X-Men. The first X-Men by Bryan Singer are very good—I re-watched them the other day.
I’ve read basically every review of my films because I’m crazy and I focus on what’s negative and I want to know what people think—and why they think it. So many times I’ve been bullied into references and influences that were never mine by viewers that would project their opinions and associations and assumptions on me. I remember some journalist wrote: “Yes, we got it, you saw Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.” I had never heard of that movie. I know who Godard is, and I’ve seen 2 films by him. But let’s get real: ideas travel and everything’s been done, it’s all a matter of interpreting things again now.
I just shot Tom at the Farm and it was an exercise in humility because we were just restraining: restraining ourselves in terms of indulgence. We were shooting in 35mm and when we were doing closeups, it’s a reflex to lose all depth of field because it gives you this feeling of hovering. It was so strange thinking “that is not the movie we’re doing.” It’s a psychological thriller, and it’s dry and raw and rough and it’s in the country and its ugly. So that was an interesting exercise. And yet some people came to focus groups and were like: “I watched the movie and it was so you!” And I thought: “How is that? It’s impossible!”
I get the sense that you have a pretty strong hand in your own production design. Can you speak a little about the process in Laurence Anyways?
I know directors who are surprised that I do my own costumes, but I really like doing it myself. For Laurence Anyways I think I fitted something like 2000 different outfits. It’s shocking to me that a director would put all of his faith in one person blindly and still call himself a director. People have said to me: “We really liked the music in Laurence Anyways, did you choose that yourself?” Well, who did? No, my mother did. I told my mother: “Here’s the movie, choose the music and call me back, or send me an email.” Of course I did!
That’s what being a director is. You conceive a movie within a collective of people, a community. You work with people but they don’t work for you. It’s ludicrous to think people work for you: “a film by…” doesn’t exist. Directed by, maybe, but it’s a film from a collective, a group of people whom you consult and seek your counsel and advice and vice versa too. I love the way it all happened on Laurence Anyways because every department was colliding and merging into others and that’s the way it should work, I think.
Each one of your films has its own distinct color palette, which feels more stylistic than symbolic.
There’s no color scheme in I Killed My Mother, I can tell you. But yeah. Heartbeats is Marianne red, Francis blue. It’s really little boy, little girl. I was still young, and the only thing I could come up with was, let’s make the guy blue and the girl pink. For Laurence it was a little more elaborate because the way we schemed the film was we decided there would be chapters.
I Killed My Mother
The word spécial comes up a lot in the film—as it did in I Killed My Mother—in reference to the concept of difference. The word doesn’t quite translate from French to English.
We used “special” [in English] in I Killed My Mother and it was a mistake. In Laurence Anyways we used “different,” because that’s our reflex in English. When people think of something abnormal, they’re going to say, “well that’s different.” It’s offensive because its so hypocritical and phony—like we don’t want to offend you but…
It’s hard to translate a film; it’s not about providing the English speaking audience with exact subtitles, it’s about preserving a sense of what the dialogue is like. And there’s nothing like being a dialogist yourself, so I do it with my friends. I do it with Jacob Tierney, a friend of mine from Montreal, and my friend Dave Hamelin who’s formerly in The Stills and now in a band called 8 1/2 who lives in Toronto. We just take a little time and subtitle the entire movie.
The concept of difference is a central theme in your films—looking at difference without necessarily understanding it.
Yes. My characters are always fighting against society—except in Heartbeats. Heartbeats was a little exercise. It was more of a cerebral effort. Heartbeats is to movies what an essay is to literature. It’s an attempt at expressing something, that’s why sometimes it’s a little preposterous.
I don’t find it preposterous at all, but you seem to have a sense of ambivalence toward that film.
I feel ambivalent towards my two first films, yes. I actually watched Heartbeats three weeks ago; I was depressed and I had nothing to do and I had finished all of Friday Night Lights [laughs]. I had seen a clip of Heartbeats on TV—and this is lame but I actually bought it on iTunes because I couldn’t find my DVD. I thought, well, I’m going to help myself… or something. [Laughs]
Yeah. So I bought it, and I watched it. And I had a good time. I thought it was funny and I was proud of myself and of Monia [Chokri, the actress] and what we accomplished together. Although I had the feeling every scene could’ve ended fifteen seconds earlier and it drove me crazy. I have such a different sense of editing now [after] Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm. So when I was watching the film, I was like: “End of scene. Now! End it!” A lot of people said the slow motion was so slow in that movie, and I don’t really agree, it’s fun and it’s ridiculous also and that’s what this movie should be; this movie loves its characters as much as it’s making fun of them.
Yesterday I was strongly annoyed by the movie, and regretted it, because I don’t want to be offensive to the public who love it. But it’s an artistic thing I think a lot of directors have, this sort of shameful thinking: “What went through my mind, why would I frame a shot like this?” But it’s also the proof that confirms you’re evolving and improving as an artist. I’d rather look back at my first films and think “it’s interesting but I could do better” and [actually] get better than watch my first films and think “what the hell happened? I was way better then, I’m horrible now.” The other way around is preferable.
You seem determined to assert something different with each of film and don’t want one film being compared to another, but what do you hope the word “Dolan-esque” refers to?
If you want to use such a word after only three films, I guess it’s strongly tempered women, flamboyant costumes, buoyant colors and kinetic scenes, and clips. I love to make parentheses. To say, let’s take a break now. Here’s a clip, a sort of musical intermission. Music is the soul of the film, so why not enjoy it?
If people say Tom at the Farm is Dolan-esque they would be mistaken. A lot directors out there promote their own signature and their own trademark and I’m really happy for them but its also very distracting when you watch a film to feel that someone is putting himself or herself up front and wont give you a break from remembering that this is a movie directed by someone. When you watch a movie you want to forget this and think this is a microcosm created for you and for the story and not for someone to show off and say this is my oeuvre—it’s tiring.
Last night you expressed frustration with regards to the limited audience in Quebec—and for Canadian films more generally. Do you think you would have succeeded in making the kinds of films you have had you started in the U.S.?
Definitely not. I don’t think there would have been a place for me here. The fights seem to be fixed a lot of the time. In the indie scene, maybe, who knows? I think I really had to have come from such a small industry like Quebec’s to have a margin where everything could unfold, otherwise I would have been swallowed here. There are so many people trying to make movies in the States. Everybody is trying to make a movie here, which is not the case in Quebec. We make something like 30 official films a year, and 60 total, if you include small-scale projects and things that may never be seen, so that leaves a lot of room for people who dream of a “life in the theater.”