‘Happy-ever-afters don’t make the most interesting stories’

Matthias & Maxime is Xavier Dolan’s eighth feature as writer-director – and he’s only 31

Xavier Dolan’s new film Matthias & Maxime has been characterised  as a quiet, contemplative affair. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville

Xavier Dolan’s new film Matthias & Maxime has been characterised as a quiet, contemplative affair. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville

 

It’s hard to believe that Xavier Dolan turned 31 last March. For one thing, he’s so boyish looking that any decent bartender would demand to see identification. For another, throughout his career, the Québecois auteur has been synonymous with such youthful epithets as “enfant terrible” and “wunderkind”.

He won’t miss those particular monikers.

“But they’ll find new epithets,” laughs Dolan. “Surely they won’t call me by my name, will they? Unimaginable!”

Matthias & Maxime, Dolan’s eighth feature as writer-director, sees the former child star return to the front of the camera as Maxime, one of two men whose friendship changes after they are asked to kiss for an experimental short film.

Dolan, having previously authored the doomed romances of Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm, really does love his tales of impossible love.

“Ha ha, yes! I do! I guess uncomplicated happy-ever-afters don’t make the most interesting stories for me to tell. I do love them in life. But in film, or rather, in the films I write, I think imperfections, contradictions, problems are more inspiring, more promising narratively speaking. That’s me, of course. But I do enjoy watching other people’s romantic flicks. Actually, that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s been a Nancy Meyersesque quarantine.”

The new film has been characterised by many reviewers as a quieter, contemplative affair when set beside the wild operatic trappings of Dolan’s most-decorated features. Both title characters are in their late twenties, and the film often feels like a fascinating, contemplative corrective to standard teenage coming out narratives. Matthias (played by Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), whose conventional  personality manifests in a tendency toward grammar Nazism, is a picture perfect hot-shot lawyer with a picture-perfect girlfriend. He’s made uncomfortable by the movie kiss and still more uncomfortable by Maxime’s reminder that they perhaps kissed “one time” years ago.

“I was with a friend at this birthday party for a younger friend,” recalls Dolan. “To be five years apart in age is apparently all it takes now to feel like you’re from another generation. Watching younger people interact with each other that night made us realise how different we were, how different we’d always been from millennials, especially when it came to how comfortable you are with your sexual identity, or the idea people have of what your sexual identity might be. When we graduated, two guys kissing each other were gay. The end.

“At that party, behaviours that would’ve been interpreted as queer back in our high school days were in fact purely meaningless to the younger people, and we left wondering how much, exactly, the notions of gender fluidity had made all the questions that agitated us much less important for these kids. That’s when I thought; what if you realise you want to try new things, explore who you are more tardily in your adult life? Next to kids for whom these concerns are, it seems, inconsequential? How does it affect your masculinity? Your reputation? Authority? Especially with ‘the boys’. It seemed like a good idea.”

“The boys” are a boisterous crowd populated by the director’s friends and inclined to shout over one another in rowdy party scenes. Altmanesque has nothing on Dolan’s film. But the choral effect was not as challenging to write and shoot as one might suppose, says the filmmaker.

“No, not especially. We’re all friends to begin with and so, as for the writing, we’re very much used to the fact of constantly interrupting each other. So that wasn’t too challenging to write. Nor to shoot. I guess the challenge comes in the editing suite, when you realise we’re all overlapping each other like idiots and choices need to be made.”

Pop music

A heartfelt miniature when set beside Dolan’s more lavish, operatic work, Matthias & Maxime marks the first time that Dolan has directed himself since 2013’s remarkable Tom at the Farm. In other respects it’s classic Xavier. The playful use of stock and aspect ratios and the familiar theme of fraught maternalism all fit within a larger body of work. Anne Dorval, who previously starred in Dolan’s I Killed My Mother and Mommy, returns as her fiercest screen matriarch to date. Her character is counterpointed by the warm, kindly presence of Matthias’s mother. It’s a dichotomy that happened by design, says Dolan.

“I think I wanted to stress how differently Matthias and Maxime respond to the crisis they’re going through based on their social milieu and how they’ve been brought up, “ he says. “Perhaps I’m totally wrong, but I thought; having everything in life and knowing stability holds you to certain standards, whereas coming from nothing and having very little makes you less vulnerable when you lose all your bearings. So in my head, that’s why Maxime reacts so openly to the notion of a romance with his childhood best friend, while Matthias seems utterly challenged and recalcitrant.”

Another Dolan tic is the sensual use of pop music; notably Phosphorent’s Song for Zula and Arcade Fire’s Signs of Life. His unpretentious soundtracks, in keeping with his disarming personality, are always littered with fun contemporary tracks by Lana Del Rey, Oasis, Celine Dion and Moby. Often, these songs inspire sequences from the bottom up but it can work either way.

Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas and Xavier Dolan in Matthias & Maxime. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville
Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas and Xavier Dolan in Matthias & Maxime. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville

“It’s both, always,” he says. “Sometimes, a song inspires a scene in itself. If not the scene comes first and you then seek out the song to go with it. But I’ll never force a song into or on to a scene where it doesn’t belong – in my opinion. I don’t need songs to write scenes. But I always need to listen to music when I write, however. Film scores, generally.”

Dolan first appeared on screen in 1993, when he was four. He has worked steadily ever since and when he isn’t writing, directing and starring in movies, he is racking up hundreds of screen credits as the francophone Québécois voice of Harry Potter’s Ron Weasley, Twilight’s Jacob Black, and South Park’s Stan Marsh. For all the accolades he has received as a filmmaker – not to mention his modelling work for Louis Vuitton and his video for Adele’s Hello – he has no intention of quitting the sound booth.

“I keep doing it, and I love it!” he says.“It keeps me in shape.”

When Dolan last spoke to The Irish Times in 2017, he recalled lying about his cinematic influences in early interviews after his precocious directorial debut, aged just 19.

“I’ve had so few mentors and seen so few serious films. I’ve never watched Kurosawa. I’ve never seen Fanny and Alexander or 2001. Truth is, I’m a dropout, who is embarrassed by my cultural education many times a week.”

Such an omission is almost impossible to reconcile with Dolan’s glittering career. He made his brilliant, autobiographical first feature, I Killed My Mother, when he was 19, working from a screenplay he wrote at 16. That film premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, where it won three prizes. He has subsequently become the most decorated director in the festival’s history. His second feature Heartbeats 2010 took the Regards Jeunes prize in 2010, 2012’s Laurence Anyways took the Queer Palm, 2014’s Mommy won the Jury Prize, while 2016’s It’s Only the End of the World took home the Grand Jury Prize, and the Ecumenical Jury Prize.

Xavier Dolan first appeared on screen in 1993, when he was four, and has been working steadily ever since. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville
Xavier Dolan first appeared on screen in 1993, when he was four, and has been working steadily ever since. Photograph: Shayne Laverdiere/Les Films Séville

The Croisette loved It’s Only the End of the World more than many critics did. A star-studded first Anglophone feature, The Death and Life of John F Donovan, featuring Natalie Portman, Kit Harington, Thandie Newton, Susan Sarandon and Michael Gambon, failed to secure theatrical distribution in 2018. Matthias & Maxime has, accordingly, been written up as a “return to form”. Dolan, who cheerfully poked back at some of the maulings received by It’s Only the End of the World, has learned to take reviews in his stride.

“All the films I’ve made have taught me so much, and I’m grateful for all of them, and certainly not ashamed or regretful,” he says. “In the end, you cannot please everyone. Compliments and criticism are often equally deceiving anyway. Do I feel I’ve progressed as an artist? Has this film been useful and meaningful to some people? Those are the questions worth asking. If the answer’s yes, then, somehow I’ve succeeded.”

In recent times, Dolan has been spreading his wings as an actor with English-speaking roles in It Chapter Two and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased. They were great experiences, he says: “And absolutely different from one another. Boy Erased was a small independent film and It, well, a huge studio movie. Both were amazing experiences because they were directed by inspired artists I love.”

In recent interviews Dolan has repeatedly said that he wants to focus on acting rather than filmmaking during his 30s, and that he finds it harder to write and direct. That would be an unimaginable loss to cinema but with eight directorial credits since 2009 he has certainly earned a break.

“Because it’s long! It takes time. So much time. It spans months and months and you have to watch your film so many times that you inevitably end up hating it before it even comes out! So that’s why – and so many other reasons. Exhaustion from the past decade being one. But I also want to act, quite simply, and be challenged as an actor.”

Matthias & Maxime is on Mubi from August 31st  

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