So, in exploring the works of Xavier Dolan this week, we come to the obligatory Top Ten post. Since he’s only made five films, we obviously can’t do a Top Ten Films, but that’s ok because there is something a little more specific I want to talk about today. One aspect of Dolan’s films that strikes me with such intensity is his ability to create such beautifully authentic characters. His films are embodied by richly textured characters that create such a well-rounded study of human interaction. It doesn’t hurt that he has coaxed some remarkable performances out of his actors, but this list is less a look at the best performances and more a look at the best characters.
In many respects, it could also serve as my list of favorite performances, especially as we reach the Top Five (and pretty much in that order as well), but this isn’t about that. This is about the remarkable characters that, on paper, Xavier created, and on the screen, he directed.
‘Julienne Alia’ as portrayed by Nathalie Baye in Laurence Anyways
Julienne Alia, the mother to transsexual Laurence, is a small part of Laurence Anyways, and yet she leaves a lasting impact. Her gradual acceptance of her son’s decision and transition is a remarkable example of unwavering parental affections, and each nuanced detail that Dolan gave this character is so impactful. You can see her inner monologue working behind her eyes, saying everything she isn’t saying or cannot say or eventually will figure out how to say. With just a few short scenes, Dolan wrote a woman who feels complete, backstory and personal progression included.
‘Chantale Lemming’ as portrayed by Anne Dorval in I Killed My Mother
I Killed My Mother is largely told from the perspective of Hubert, but that doesn’t mean that Chantale isn’t a remarkably impressionable character. In fact, it is this frustrated single mother that, for me anyways, stays with me as a viewer. While her point of view is rarely expressly articulated, much like the character of Julienne Alia, there is so much that lies below the surface here. Her final moments, that maternal confession, her unwavering love; it all builds from such a grounded and understood place.
‘Francis’ as portrayed by Xavier Dolan in Heartbeats
I know this kid. I was this kid. This is, for me, Dolan’s greatest performance as an actor, and a lot of that has to do with the honesty he brings the lovelorn Francis. The best thing about this character is that he feels truly three-dimensional in a film with a prose that could, in the wrong hands, have felt so one-dimensional. You can see the shades, the passion, the loneliness, the longing, the heartache…the incredible rebound. That final scene is so remarkably played, so effortlessly modern and idealistic. Dolan wrote and portrayed such an honest portrait of a teen weaving through the tropes of love.
‘Tom’ as portrayed by Xavier Dolan in Tom at the Farm
When you first realize that Tom has essentially brainwashed himself into accepting persecution as a way to mask his grief, it’s already been evident for quite a few scenes, but that is the power of this character because it’s such an intricate and detailed look at grief that it completely sneaks up on you. Granted, Dolan adapted this from a previous work, but you can feel Dolan’s fingers all over this, and it is geniusly detailed. The complete surrender to being dominated for the briefest reminder of your lost love is so richly written, but as he comes to grips with his own wavering identity/sanity, this is where the character comes full circle right before our eyes.
‘Kyla’ as portrayed by Suzanne Clement in Mommy
Kyla is, on the surface, a underdeveloped character. The focal point of Mommy is so clearly Die and Steve that she can be disregarded as a mere plot point by those unwilling to completely take her in, but the thing is that the minute details slipped into every moment she’s on screen create a woman who is a parallel to the film’s protagonist, a mirrored reflection of her future and a counterpoint of decisions made. While her backstory is never expressly expressed, we can piece it together, and her final scene carries such weight because it shows how differences in the handling of grief can cause assumptions that, once expressed can be corrected.
‘Laurence Alia’ as portrayed by Melvil Poupaud in Laurence Anyways
Finding yourself is a theme/quality that is explored in many, many films, but rarely is it portrayed with such complex depth of character. Here, Dolan writes such a texturally multi-faceted character, a man who is living and breathing in the wrong skin, and expertly understands how to build this character with such balanced authenticity. He layers the restraint with the abrasive nature of such a change, giving Laurence a complete transformation. The way that he grows this character, from scene to scene, decision to decision, is such a remarkable feat. He bleeds such soul into this man. It is so much more than a mere technical character, which is what it easily could have become. As Laurence finds himself, leaving fragments of the man he was behind him, he starts, slowly yet surely, to etch out a man who we can all identify with because we have all struggled with identity. That is the crux of this character, and what makes it so universally profound. This is a character steeped in the struggle to gain the identity he feels is outside of his reach, and because of that we can find ourselves in the small details Dolan uses to color in his persona.
‘Francis’ as portrayed by Pierre-Yves Cardinal in Tom at the Farm
Francis is one of the most compelling antagonists in film that I’ve ever seen. The use of sexuality as a ploy to flesh out a villain is not something new, but Dolan and his actor, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, develop something so richly textured and so intricately detailed that he feels like a completely new and remarkably original creation. As Francis’s mental state shows fractures and bouts of intense violence and unstable domination, the film’s atmosphere almost feels completely tied up in just WHO this man is. In fact, Dolan uses Francis as a plot point almost as much as he uses him as a character, because it is through the development of this one character we see the themes presented take full shape. As Francis exposes himself, ever so slightly (and in such fleeting moments) to Tom, we begin to see the full breadth of even Tom’s own sanity, and the deteriorating effect of Tom’s grief (haunting, and eventually destructive) begins to become evident. Tom latches himself to Francis, a man who is brutal, controlling and abusive, and yet the rationalization in the fabric of the film’s scenes feels wholly believable just because of the way that Dolan and Cardinal build this one man.
‘Diane Despres’ as portrayed by Anne Dorval in Mommy
Die, on the surface, is a trashy bitch. She’s a trashy bitch who lives in frustration due to her extremely unstable and violent son. But Die is not just a surface character, thanks to Dolan’s incredible fleshing out of this woman, and because of that we are completely taken in by her. Die is a woman who lives and dies in the light of her son, Steve. She’s got so many things stacked against her (she abrasive, sexualized, despised, trashy, alone) and yet she has one thing that binds her to her course; determined love. Dolan affords Dorval so many areas to shade this woman, and she takes him up on it, task for task. Watching Die observe her son was one of the most heartbreaking cinematic moments for me in quite some time. The way that she so earnestly desires for nothing but Steve’s happiness, the way she selflessly gives of herself and sacrifices her own wellbeing is so reaching, so captivating. As the film barrels forward, this woman becomes so clear, so complete, so honest.
‘Steve Despres’ as portrayed by Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Mommy
Oh look, that kid has ADHD. Let’s make him yell a lot and be really annoying and unstable and let’s make him disrespect authority and then, when all seems lost, let’s make him have this huge epiphany moment where all becomes better. In the hands of a lesser writer/director, this is what would have happened. Thankfully, Steve Despres is not a gimmick. This is one of the most complex character portraits I’ve seen in recent memory, an explosion of themes and details and unbelievable naturalism. Every dissolve into rage, every cackle, every mood shift, every abandonment of self, every jovial composition, every repressed emotion, every depiction of fear, pain, love…everything is so well developed and has its place. Steve is a character that will change the way you think, because Steve is a character that makes us face a reality we aren’t used to facing.
‘Fred Belair’ as portrayed by Suzanne Clement in Laurence Anyways
This was a bit of a tough one, but when I sat back and thought about it, the unexpected depth within Fred causes this character to latch onto that first place spot. I guess what makes Fred so incredibly profound to me is that I was completely unprepared for how Dolan chose to handle this character. Here is a woman who is deeply in love with a man who, unbeknownst to her, wants to be a woman. The way she handles and processes this information is outstanding. Instead of making her a victim, exploiting her abandonment, and instead of going to cheap way and making her an antagonist of sorts, a condemning figure in Laurence’s metamorphosis, Dolan creates in Fred such a remarkably balanced character, a woman who blisters with internal pain over the sudden unexpectedness of her situation, but also a woman who, because of her tremendous love, is selfless and understanding. This balance makes her boiled frustrations so commanding, so heartbreaking. She’s unforgettable and unshakable and a completely beautiful soul.