Sixteen year-old Hubert Minel (Xavier Dolan) doesn't love his mother (Anne Dorval). He haughtily regards her with contempt, and only sees her tacky sweaters, kitsch decorations and the breadcrumbs that get stuck on the corner of her lips when she munches. In addition to these irritating surface details, there is also his parent's cherished mechanisms of manipulation and guilt. Confused by this love/hate relationship that obsesses him more and more each day, Hubert drifts through the mysteries of an adolescence both marginal and typical – artistic discoveries, illicit experiences, the opening-up to friendship, sex and ostracism.
Australian Centre for the Moving Image: Peppered with vituperative domestic exchanges, I Killed My Mother was a suitable introduction to the festival circuit and subsequent independent distribution for the young French-Canadian filmmaker, Xavier Dolan. The movie, made when the now 22-year-old writer/director was at the end of his teens, is grimly dedicated to the emotional topography of adolescent alienation. 'When I try to imagine what the worst mother in the world is like," spits high school student Hubert (Dolan) at his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), 'I can’t do better than you."
Hemmed inside a car or sitting inside their hermetically sealed home, where outside life symbolically never shines in, mother and son exchange barbs with the practiced craft of long-time combatants. Dolan lens their spats – Hubert is fiery, Chantale disdainful until she erupts – with formal precision: uncomfortable two shots give way to doleful individual framings where the space around the protagonists only emphasises how they have little beside arguing with each other. Dolan has no time for humour, any hint of comic relief – such as an enraged Chantale charging into Hubert’s classroom when she finds out he has told a teacher, Julie (Suzanne Clement), that his mother is dead – is met with an escalation of animosity; the two almost come to blows in the hallway.
His bursts of technique are more precise than lyrical. Hubert ruminates on the state of his relationship with his mother to an unknown interrogator (or, just as likely, another identification of himself) in a monochromatic close-up that’s normally the preserve of high end fashion advertising, while snatches of slow-motion are used to simply punctuate his locked-off shots rather than to accentuate or illuminate the emotional context. The aesthetic is still, as if Dolan is watching for a weakness in his own approach. This is considered, not off the cuff.
'Oh sinister, cruel woman," begins a poem Hubert composes about Chantale (okay, that’s kind of funny), and the film stays with his perspective. As a coming of age tale, I Killed My Mother acknowledges the narrow-mindedness and spite of youthful disdain – it doesn’t want to reach for insight into the characters. Hubert gets some advice from Julie, but the story doesn’t look for familial rapprochement. Instead it’s bound up in Hubert’s isolation, and tellingly Dolan layers the two most physically direct scenes for his gay character – making love with his genial boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), and being physically attacked in a hate crime – in a score that obliterates the sounds of bodies clashing. What happens to Hubert physically is kept at a distance from his obvious intellect.
Heartbeats, the successor to I Killed My Mother, is a better work – both are screening at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image from Thursday 7 to Thursday 28 April – but the debut feature does enough – the low-budget picture’s production design is always telling, if somewhat affectionate, for example – to suggest that Xavier Dolan is a talent worth watching. He’s stubborn in getting what he wants on the screen, and that’s served more than a few greats very well.