Xavier Dolan is extremely clear about one thing. Let there be no comparisons between his new film and his last. "They're very, very different films," says the Montreal filmmaker sternly. "My mission for the past weeks has been to try to impress upon the public that these are two very different and incomparable things."
Given the situation, Dolan's efforts at distancing himself from last year's film are understandable. Twelve months ago, he showed up at Cannes with his low-budget, autobiographical debut feature, J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) - which he wrote, directed and starred in - and took home three awards at the festival. All this at the tender age of 20 - making it one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of the medium.
But one year later, he's returning to Cannes with a similarly low-budget feature ($1.6 million) - Les Amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) - one he insists is decidedly different from his earlier movie about a fraught mother-son relationship. "Expectations only exist when there's a comparison to be made," he instructs. "They are not the same thing."
The number of privileges you get when you're a bit famous is odd - discounts on bills and things.
Point taken. The basic premise for the new film was written on the train from Montreal to Toronto, when Dolan was headed to the Toronto International Film Festival last September for the premiere of J'ai tué ma mère. Dolan had been location-scouting for a film tentatively titled Lawrence Anyways, about how a relationship is altered when one of those involved has a sex change. But funding became an issue, and Dolan learned he'd have to postpone the shoot.
"I couldn't stand the idea of doing nothing for a year, of being in a void," he says. "I had just been on a road trip with two of my friends. There had been no ambiguity in our relationship, no secrets or anything. But I thought artistically it would be intriguing to do something on the idea of two friends competing for the love of the same man. It didn't happen, but it's quite credible." The two friends Dolan took the road trip with were Niels Schneider (who acted in J'ai tué ma mère) and Monia Chokri, and with Dolan, they appear as members of the amorous trio in the new feature.
Even though the people who inspired the script are playing the parts, Dolan insists this feature isn't as autobiographical as the last one. "It's fiction. But I don't think I'm ever going to write fiction non-empirically. I don't know heterosexual couples in the fifties; I don't know shit, really. So I need to stick with what I know. And I have this as a basic core to which I add substance from my own imagination. It's never 100-per-cent fiction."
Dolan says he was eager to get away from strained family relations after J'ai tué ma mère. "Desperate people seeking love can be very funny and cynical - hilarious even - as long as you're not living it. It's funny to watch until you become that person. The character, unknowingly, starts digging deeper in their humiliation and lack of dignity, and it becomes kind of awful. It's a comedy, but a dark one."
Dolan says some of the people he's shown Les Amours imaginaires to have likened it to the work of Spain's most famous auteur, Pedro Almodovar, "which is funny, because I've only seen a few of his films, and I wasn't consciously trying to evoke his work. I have respect for him, but if there are connections, they are entirely random."
Dolan has become a major celebrity in his native Quebec in a matter of a year, due to the overwhelming success of J'ai tué ma mère. His cinematic good looks - he has been dubbed a Muppet-baby version of Johnny Depp - mean people often stop him on the street. "I get recognized a lot," he says. "The number of privileges you get when you're a bit famous is odd - discounts on bills and things. It's unexpected, and at times lovely, and intoxicating even. But at times I feel a bit guilty about it."
He did get a call from Brad Pitt's production company amid the first wave of post-Cannes publicity about J'ai tué ma mère, but he says it led to nothing. "I called back and left a message. Nothing since. But I'm not that big on this whole fame thing. I'd call my friends for coffee before answering a letter from the Queen. But she would never write to me anyway, so I'll never have to face that dilemma."
Quebec's film scene is enjoying some invigorating success stories, from Dolan to the fact that Quebeckers seem more than willing to line up at cinemas to see films made by other Quebeckers (something the rest of Canada's film community is still striving for). And that has led to a rather bitter ongoing family feud. The spat has boiled down to one paramount question: Should government funding bodies such as the federal Telefilm Canada and the province's Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) opt for a crowd-pleasing blockbuster genre movie (like Bon Cop, Bad Cop or De Père en flic), or for the cinema d'auteur (like Dolan's work or that of Denis Villeneuve)?
Not too surprisingly, Dolan suggests a lot of the attempts to make Hollywood-style blockbusters may well be misguided. "It's a question of mathematics. This market [Quebec]will never be lucrative. The market is not big enough for these films to turn a profit, even if they do very well. We don't have the demographics, the population, to justify all this money spent on attempting to make entertaining blockbusters. I'm not saying we shouldn't make those movies, but we should acknowledge that these films will never be profitable.
"The question is, do we make a cinema that tries to emulate Hollywood or Paris, or do we make an authentic cinema where we recognize ourselves and our history, one that's more exportable? The choice isn't mine to make, but I'm going to have to deal with the consequences of it."
Special to The Globe and Mail