Xavier Dolan's semi-autobiographical J'ai tué ma mère / I Killed My Mother has been getting a lot of attention, mostly because Dolan is 19 and has won three awards at Cannes 2009 for his first film. A former child actor, Dolan spent some of his acting money to make this film about an adolescent (played by himself) who hates his mother.
I really wanted to like I Killed My Mother because it's Canadian and made by such a young fellow. I even thought Dolan could be the Canadian Orson Welles! But he's not, and I Killed My Mother is definitely not Citizen Kane.
Although Dolan's screenplay is certainly interesting, it's filled with so much angst that it does not translate to the filmmaker's style. Dolan's character, Hubert Minel, spends most of the movie shouting, whining, or crying either about his mother or at her. Hubert is supposed to be some sort of genius – a special kind of student – but he's too wrapped up in his James Dean-like, off-the-handle emotions that he can't get it together to follow through with anything.
I Killed My Mother shows Hubert's life through his interactions with those close to him: his single mother (Anne Dorval), his boyfriend Antonin Rimbaud (François Arnaud), and his teacher Julie (Suzanne Clément). Hubert doesn't treat these people with any sort of respect, and since the film is framed completely from his perspective I found it damn hard to be sympathetic with such an immature lead.
I Killed My Mother also suffers from a level of pretension comparable to that of first-year film students explaining why drinking sour milk is a metaphor for maternity. The fact that the boyfriend's name is Antonin Rimbaud really rubbed me the wrong way; it was clear that Dolan merely wanted his audience to understand that he's read some books. There are several references throughout to Cocteau, de Maupassant, and de Laclos - so many, in fact, that the references to these artists made the film seem like it was reaching to be better than it actually was.
Another problem is that all shots are organized and measured out in a manner that fails to match the angst found in the script and the performances. For instance, nearly every shot is a medium close up; we hardly ever see a character's waist. In each scene, Dolan would box a character in so much that I began to get claustrophobic. It was an interesting visual, but it did not match the tone of the film. Also, there are several scenes where we see Hubert standing in the middle of the shot, boxed in by a fireplace or some sort of frame, with a chair on the right and a statue on the left - or something similar. Everything is symmetrical and it stands out too much.
Whenever Dolan uses wide shots he hides the actor's head in the bottom right or bottom left of the screen. When two characters talk, he cuts back and forth between close-ups of their faces - one character on the extreme right, the next on the extreme left - creating a mirror image of each other and lots of empty space around their faces. Dolan suggested in an interview with the Huffington Post that this was to symbolize the distance between the characters, but it actually just makes them more connected and closer together.
The most redeeming element in I Killed My Mother is Anne Dorval as Hubert's mother Chantale. When the camera is on her and we're given her side of the story, the film feels more mature. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often. Dorval's performance is excellent, though she is not used well enough. For instance, she has few close-ups while Hubert is yelling at her about her eating habits; even so, the pain in her eyes just bleeds through the scene - amazing. It's too bad that we are hardly ever given the chance to see things from her point of view.
Of course, as a first film I Killed My Mother is a good try, but it is not the type of genius filmmaking most people are making it out to be.
J'ai tué ma mère / I Killed My Mother (2009). Dir. / Scr.: Xavier Dolan. Cast: Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, François Arnaud, Suzanne Clément.