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Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval in J'ai tue ma mere.
Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval in J'ai tue ma mere.

Film Friday

An archetypal teen takes on his mother's inner tiger Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

I Killed My Mother (J'ai tué ma mère)

  • Directed and written by Xavier Dolan
  • Starring Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval
  • Classification: 14A

Love sometimes hurts, but love/hate is always pure anguish. That's the two-stroke engine powering I Killed My Mother ( J'ai tué ma mère), a coming-of-age tale as ferociously raw as its teller - the very young Xavier Dolan. Writer, director and star, he's merely 20 himself, just out of those teenage years with his wounds still open and his memories fresh. The result, which earned multiple awards at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a film much like its protagonist - erratic yet sensitive, screaming trouble and talent at high decibels.

The screaming starts early, and every match features the same opponents. In today's Quebec, 17-year old Hubert (Dolan) lives in two-part disharmony with his divorced mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). They used to be close, they used to talk, now they mainly shout. Why? Certainly not because he's gay. And not just because of their emerging creative differences: He's an aspiring painter, she's a plodding accountant; he reads the classics, she visits tanning salons; he's struggling in his new aesthetic skin, she's content in her philistine armour.

No, these may be precipitating causes, but the real source of their strife is an intense mutual love that has decayed inwards, becoming airless and heavy and sowing the seeds of its opposite. Both seem powerless under its weight. For Hubert, anything can set him off - a lingering crumb on his mother's lips, or just her predictable verbal tics. For her part, Chantale has grown hardened to her son's tirades, although - and this is where Dolan's ear for dialogue is acute - she's not simply the blameless victim of a teenager's angst. The boy frequently has a point: His mom can be truly annoying, and her passive/aggressive manner is often as frustrating for us as for him.

Occasionally, Hubert finds temporary solace in the company of a sympathetic teacher or in the arms of his boyfriend Antonin. Refreshingly, the script treats his homosexuality as a given, an important part of his nature but incidental to the central conflict. And so, being central, the shouting matches form the framework of the first two acts, occurring again and again. Initially, they're riveting in their very realism, and we eavesdrop almost guiltily, like embarrassed intruders on a domestic battlefield. Real too, unfortunately, is the eventual residue of these scenes: The fights come to seem tiresome, and the movie stalls.

As director, Dolan tries to reignite things with his sporadic flourishes - a quick flashback here, a surreal insertion there, abrupt shifts to black and white when Hubert addresses the lens of his video diary. But the techniques all seem a little self-conscious. Far more effective is his rebound in the last act when, without once stooping to sentimentality, Dolan taps into the bedrock of shared affection beneath the pair's volcanic anger, a love much harder to express but no less deeply felt. And the lead performers, who are terrific throughout, get even better as this climax looms.

Dolan has the showier role, and takes full advantage. Hiding behind floppy bangs, he perfectly captures that terrible chameleon lurking within every archetypal teen - sensitive and then brutish, articulate and then mute, conscience-stricken and then unconscionable. However, despite his flamboyance, it's Dorval's nuanced work that anchors the picture. She's superb at alternately soliciting and alienating our sympathies. Even better, watch near the end for an extended sequence where, on the telephone and thus acting alone, Dorval reveals Chantale's inner tiger, her ire directed for once at a third party, a school bureaucrat mired in his male ignorance. At that moment, parent and kid discover a common enemy, and rediscover common ground.

Watch for this too, one of the best parting scenes in any film. They're arguing again, in a car that's pulling up to the bus station where he's about to leave for boarding school. Exasperated, storming off, the son spits out that old teenage trope dripping in cheap melodrama: "What would you do if I died today?" Out of his earshot, a mother half-smiles in resignation at the turned back of her departing child, and then whispers softly to herself: "I'd die tomorrow."

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