We look back at the role of mothers in the pre-"Mommy" films of Xavier Dolan. "Mommy," of course, just won rave reviews at Cannes (and the Prix du Jury), and hopefully sends a few folks back to the four films -- and the role of mothers portrayed in each -- that came before it.
The pet preoccupation of young Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan is not, at first glance, particularly interesting. Mothers. Alright, someone says, he has mommy issues. But the issue runs far deeper than writing it off so dismissively. For Dolan, as a queer filmmaker, uses his experience, position, and talent to explore mothers with atypical approaches. The divide between a mother and their queer child is also nothing particularly new, but, for at least I Killed My Mother and Laurence Anyways, his maternal characters transcend the roles given to them to become much more.
The difference between someone using I Killed My Mother as a revenge film and what Xavier Dolan has actually done is that the film exists dually like a document of the dynamic and as an apology (not unlike certain elements of Her). Dolan does not let his characters off the hook, but nor does he seem to mock them. Hubert is at once wanton and childish and suffering from the archetypal angsty ennui, totally misunderstood by his mother, but at the same time there is a deep hurt and pain that exists in Hubert which is, for the better, unexplained. Chantale does not understand the essence of “it takes two to tango”, often uses her parental role as leverages in arguments where it is fairly irrelevant, and inadvertently refuses to compromise with her son, but simultaneously she exists as a strong single mother whose flaws do not overtly demonize her and whose pain is just as palpable as Hubert’s.
It is with a very, very careful brush that Dolan paints this relationship, but from a distance it’s nearly Pollack-esque. Wild, unruly, untamed. Their arguments fly out of control, each of them knowing how to trigger the other reflexively. They scream at one another; their conversations escalate so rapidly it jars the audience. It would be easy to reduce these characters to very superficial ideas of what these relationships are like: Hubert is just selfish and immature versus Chantale is just a “bitch”. And though the intermittent self-interviews that Hubert provides gives the impression of a one sidedness to the relationship and to the emotion, it allows Anne Dorval’s spectacular acting skill to flesh out an already meticulously created character.
Hubert, though, knows that this kind of tempestuous relationship is unusual, stating to the camera that other teenagers may have ups and downs with their mothers but not quite like this. It ever gets like this for them. He sees his boyfriend and how he interacts with his mother, playful, kind, never condescending. And he sits on the bed, embarrassed, both by his actions as well as by his mother.
The relationship informs his work, everything he writes, paints, and says, and yet it remains a secret. It is the thing he is most ashamed of, for as much as he wishes it to work, there is an impenetrable wall between them. Even when he tries to come out to his mother, totally intoxicated, he can’t.
Chantale specifically has what could be understood as a thankless role, and in the wrong hands (both for the writer and actress), the mother would merely translate as the emasculating woman whose primary goal is to condescend to her son. Though more feminine than her homosexual son, the distance and disgust doesn’t come from femininity but a natural rift that is perhaps most amplified by her son’s desire to both become independent as well as his sexuality. Dorval plays the character with precision. Her disappointment and sadness at what has become of their relationship is evident in her tone and facial expression. Like Hubert, every argument wears on her, something that she by no means wishes to transpire but can barely stop it from happening anyways.
The self-awareness in this semi-autobiographical film exists in the ending: if Dolan just wanted to villainize his mother, he could have. But instead, he humanizes both characters, showing them both at their most ridiculous as well as their most sympathetic and real. The ending features old home movie footage of Hubert running around with his mother, an idealistic version of what their relationship once was and now can never be.
Though mothers do not play as large of a role in Dolan’s sophomore feature Heartbeats, his cinematic Ménage à trois best described as Jules and Jim by way of Wong Kar-Wai, one nonetheless appears, adding texture to the film. Anne Dorval returns as the mother of Nicolas, a painfully handsome lad who becomes the object of desire for friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri). At her son’s birthday party, she dons a vibrant blue wig and dances sensually near her son during The Knife’s “Pass This On” as Francis and Marie stare off in envy. The lightning blue weirdly leaves the impression a “lost youth”. This is, of course, fodder for Francis and Marie’s gossipy barbs, calling her an “android” and like “the prostitute from Blade Runner”. It does seem out of place for a mother to be there, but Dolan doesn’t bother trying to establish her as a “cool mom”, given the inauthenticity of the archetype as it is (see: Amy Poehler in Mean Girls). Yet the mother’s presence seems to only deflect those insults back to the two making them, carrying out the larger theme of rivalry between the two over Nicolas.
The morning after the party, Nicolas and Marie depart briefly to grab a car to take to the country, and Francis is left in Nic’s apartment alone. A knock comes at the door interrupting Francis’s masturbation session, and Desiree, Nic’s mother, stands in a statuesque manner, this time sporting a dark maroon wig. She is decked out in a fur jacket, a sequined blouse, and lace gloves and lights her cigarette with an air of decadence.
She says, channeling the younger hipster she wants to be, “The party was a fuckin’ blast!” And then this very strange thing happens: she briefly seems to flirt with Francis, saying, “Nick’s talked about you. It’s true, you’re a cutie!” She sucks on her teeth to make a snapping sound, coquettishness oozing from her smirk. It is not merely weird because the mother of the guy Francis is in love with is playfully flirting with him, but the intertext seems even odder given that Dorval played Dolan’s mother in I Killed My Mother, making whatever Oedipal subtext in either film even more apparent, especially in Mother. There’s a strange sexual charge that exists. (She also calls him a “twinkie” and a “heartbreaker”.)
To what end Nic’s mother has had an influence on him is indiscernible. Ironically, Desiree’s small words deepens Francis’s lust for her son. Put off by her flirting, “he’s talked about you” heightens his infatuation with Nicolas.
The conversation continues to a discussion on Nick’s father and his mother’s profession as a dancer. Dolan mentioned recently at Cannes that he is “unimpressed with the father figure”, and Desiree’s contempt for Nick’s father when dropping off Nick’s allowance seems to epitomize that feeling. It exists also in I Killed My Mother with Hubert’s father barely featured but to send the young man off to boarding school, thus only serving one purpose in his life. As opposed to being there to alleviate any tension, he exacerbates it.
Dolan’s epic third film Laurence Anyways, a trans* odyssey of the most glorious kind, presents a fascinating turnaround with regard to how he has presented mothers in his previous work. Though the ugliness of rejection rears its head in the film, it is not the head of the eponymous Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud). Instead, it is from her lover Fred’s (Suzanne Clement) mother (Sophia Faucher), whose cold judgment rules that Fred should leave Laurence, just after Laurence comes out to her. And while much of the familial tension in the film originates from Fred’s sister Stef (Monia Chokri), Laurence’s dynamic with her mother is surprising.
When Laurence comes out to her mother (Nathalie Baye), she openly admits that the two had never really bonded, essentially articulating that their dynamic had not and would not change for the worse in terms of this revelation. She iterates this earlier sentiment later in the film, when Laurence, over lunch, says, “I always saw you as a woman who just lived in the house. Never as my mother.” Julienne replies, “And I never saw you as my son. But I do see you as my daughter.”
In another look at Dolan’s contempt for the father figure, the greatest statement that Julienne makes for Laurence is picking up the television that Laurence’s father so often stares at and smashes it on the floor. Simultaneously, Laurence’s greatest gesture of love (earlier in the film) is when she uses her mother’s birthday as a day for her own rebirth: she finally puts on the outfit she was meant to wear to school, and though some gawk in the hallways, she is accepted in the classroom. Laurence begins anew.
This is particularly fascinating because, juxtaposed against I Killed My Mother, coming out has indeed changed the mother/queer child dynamic, but for the better. It is as if that once the burden of living as someone else is through with, mother and child can connect. Though their relationship is of the warmest kind, there is nonetheless an intimacy. Julienne supports her daughter, explicitly does not question it, never even misgendering Laurence. Whereas Hubert’s queerness initially seemed to be the fundamental wall between he and his mother, Laurence’s is just the opposite.
Xavier Dolan continues to mature with each film, aging nearly a decade with each one, from the externally childish I Killed My Mother, to the adolescent hipster Heartbeats, to the adult-like emotionally ravaging Laurence Anyways. Yet all of his films have a fundamental complexity about them that makes them seem all the more interesting and impressive for someone of his age. He examines mothers in major and minor ways, the influence, the dynamic with their children, the work. His mother characters are flawed, certainly, but he writes them with depth and intricacy. Cannes Jury Prize winning Mommy has yet to receive US distribution, but one hopes that he continues his track record with mother who do not exist merely as that role, but as human beings.