Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan is nothing if not forthright. Ask the filmmaker about the latest troubled youth he has created, the heartbreakingly uncontrollable teenager in his much-praised new film Mommy, and he's perfectly frank about the source.
"It comes a lot from me, I guess," he says during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. "From the violence within, violence kept within, violence that I could exorcise eventually through movies. But he doesn't have anything to exorcise it."
The 25-year-old Dolan played the lead in his semi-autobiographical 2009 debut J'ai tué ma mère, about a gay teen fighting with his mother, but he is now getting a bit long in the tooth to play a high school student himself. In Mommy he casts the remarkable Antoine Olivier Pilon, just 16 when the film was shooting, as Steve Deprés, an ADHD teen expelled from a reform school into the arms of his struggling single mother. She is played by Anne Dorval, who was also the mother in J'ai tué, and the shouting matches, physical violence and desperate love between mother and son have created a film that earned Dolan the jury prize at Cannes last May, garnered more praise at TIFF and was recently selected to represent Canada in the foreign-language category at the Oscars.
"I can't say I have met anyone like that before," Dolan continues. "He's not inspired by anybody."
The idea for the film came from an article Dolan read about an American mother handing over her violent eight-year-old son to care. It was in the midst of a debate in the U.S. about whether safe-haven laws, intended to let teenage mothers abandon infants without repercussion, could be applied to parents unable to cope with older children. The article described the car drive to the youth facility, and the boy's reaction as he realized what was happening.
None of this is really possible in Canada, and Dolan prefaces the film with a title card explaining the action is set in a fictional Canada that has enacted a law permitting parents to have problem children committed. Critics consider that explanation largely unnecessary – most audiences will probably not notice that Steve's expulsion from one institution and his surrender to another are done without due process – and Dolan agrees it was probably a mistake, but still defends it.
"I can't say I regret it … [it creates] this Damocles sword hovering over the movie," he says. "The minute the mom says 'I'll never do this to my kid,' the audience knows she'll do it, it's just a question of when. … [It's] the ticking time bomb in the movie."
Steve is not the only angry young man in Dolan's current repertoire: The filmmaker takes to the screen in the English-language Elephant Song, Charles Binamé's adaptation of a Quebec play about a manipulative inmate in a psychiatric ward who holds the key to the disappearance of his psychiatrist. (The film, which also stars Bruce Greenwood and Catherine Keener, showed at TIFF but has not been released commercially yet.) It was a role that Dolan sought out, asking Montreal producer Richard Goudreau for the part.
"I saw in Michael the great potential for a very amusing, rich and fun performance. … I told him that character was me. I had to be Michael," he says.
He also says he saw an opportunity to appear on screen in another director's film, so that his presence on camera would not be interpreted as mere egotism.
"When I watched Elephant Song, I watched all the shots of Michael, his eyes, his lips and I was thinking, God, if I had been the director of that movie, people would destroy me for filming myself that way."
That was a criticism levelled at Tom à la ferme, his 2013 adaptation of the Michel Marc Bouchard play in which he cast himself in the title role of a grieving young man who discovers his dead lover's family did not know he was gay. Some reviewers noted that Dolan's camera seemed to linger an awful lot on Dolan's face – not a very fair complaint since the point was to turn the play into a Hitchcockian thriller based on the character's increasing terror.
Dolan reads all his reviews and often retorts, but there are few complaints about Mommy. He confided to an industry gathering at TIFF that this film's launch was the first time he ever felt the critics weren't "grading his homework."
Perhaps both Dolan and Dolan criticism are maturing as he paints on larger and larger canvases. The director, who is perfectly bilingual, is about to make the switch to directing in English for a project called The Death and Life of John K. Donovan, a dark satire about celebrity.
"What I want to share right now are the observations of the past six years of my life travelling with movies, launches, cocktails, show business. I am not a star, but I have been looking at them. … I feel I have things to say."
However, he quickly counters any suggestion that he is following the career trajectory of fellow Quebec directors such as Denis Villeneuve, who has moved to the larger English-language market.
"To me, making movies in English is not the ultimate measurement of success. It's not the final destination. … I am strictly making this movie because it is the next story I want to tell. It's a movie about show business. Show business in Montreal exists, but let's be honest, we are not going to pretend there are paparazzi.
"I am doing one film in English. And I have three projects in French in the lineup."
So if he doesn't clinch the foreign-language Oscar nomination in January, there will be plenty more opportunities for the irrepressible Dolan.