Matricide is Messy: A Look at Xavier Dolan's I Killed My Mother
Xavier Dolan was only 16 when he wrote I Killed My Mother (J'ai tue ma mere) and only 20 when he filmed the feature, juggling director and lead actor duties. A former child actor, Dolan wasn't a complete newbie to the industry but even for an experienced actor, My Mother was an auspicious directing debut, winning accolades at the Cannes International Film Festival and launching Dolan's directing career (he's since directed three more films).
Writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan in I Killed My Mother
A semi-autobiographical story, My Mother centers on disgruntled 16-year-old Hubert (played by Dolan), a gay teen living in suburban Montreal with his single mother Chantale (played by Anne Dorval). In a happy relationship with a fellow male student, Hubert is at odds with Chantale. He finds her dull and uninteresting. Every attempt to communicate between the two quickly becomes a screaming match. (They take turns derailing their conversations; sometimes he's a brat, sometimes she's unthinking.) They can't talk about the weather, much less Hubert's burgeoning sexuality.
First time director Dolan is very smart about what he shows on screen. The film's opening shot is a close-up of him as Hubert, a sullen, sultry teen with a mop of floppy curls falling over one eye. Throughout Dolan inserts black-and-white clips of Hubert's on camera diary. It's a clever tactic, allowing him to break the fourth wall and speak to the audience, to comment on an argument he's had with Chantale, to vent his anger at her, even to daydream about ways to hurt her (most of his ideas involve dramatically telling her he's never going to speak to her again).
The film's title is a play on words. Hubert "kills" his mother when he's given a school assignment to write about his parents' careers. He asks if he can write about his aunt instead. "I never see my father," he stoically tells the teacher, "and my mother is ... dead." (The ploy quickly backfires. School officials reach out to Chantale to confirm the story and, incensed, she barges into his classroom shouting, "Do I look fucking dead, for Christ's sake?")
Suzanne Clement plays Julie, a supportive teacher with Francois Arnaud appearing as Antonin, Hubert's boyfriend and Niels Schneider as Eric, a good-looking student that's attracted to Hubert. Like Dolan and Dorval, they give excellent performances.
For all its accomplishments, I Killed My Mother is not flawless. At 100 minutes, it's about 10 minutes too long. There are a few too many screaming matches between Hubert and his mom. And the issue of Hubert's sexuality seems something of an afterthought. (When Chantale learns that Hubert has had a boyfriend for several months, she isn't upset at the news so much as she's upset she didn't hear it first from Hubert).
Dolan incorporated several on-the-spot suggestions from the actors during filming. It gives I Killed My Mother a certain spontaneity but some, including Dolan, have said the technique might have detracted from the overall cohesiveness of the story. Perhaps, but that's part of the film's charm. We can't really expect a story about a troubled 16-year-old that was written by a 16-year-old to be seamless and sophisticated, can we? It's slightly disjointed and can be chaotic - just like the teenaged Hubert.
I Killed My Mother was a brilliant debut for Dolan. The film only recently got its American theatrical review and is now out on DVD.