John over at Hitchcock's World has come up with a really interesting blogathon that I just had to jump all over. Unfortunately, circumstance (my imminent move) looked as if it was going to get in the way of my participation, but fortunately for me, I had pre-chose a subject for which I was not only familiar but had already written extensively about.
The blogathon is titled Origin of an Auteur, and the rules are as follows:
1) Pick one director and identify his or her first feature film. It must be the first feature film (i.e. over one hour runtime) listed in her/his filmography.
2) While you will be primarily discussing that one film, you should have an understanding at least some of the director's later films, enough to be able to recognize his or her style.
3) Analyze your chosen film in relation to the director's later projects. What elements of his or her style do you see here?
4) Keep in mind that this blogathon is based on critical thinking and analysis, not simply on whether you liked the film. Your post should not be so much on the film itself as what it says about the director.
5) Repeats (i.e. two people writing about the same director and film) are acceptable, but discouraged. If you do choose a topic someone else is writing about, try to find something different to say on the subject.
6) Include a banner and a link back to this post. There are several banners to choose from below, and you are permitted to create your own provided they fit the blogathon's themes.
So, let's get started.
It all began back in 2009, when a then 20 year old Xavier Dolan released a film called I Killed My Mother into the wild. By wild, I mean the Cannes Film Festival. Did I mention yet that Dolan was only 20 years old? I'll give that a minute to sink in.
Reviews for I Killed My Mother were ecstatic. A new voice in cinema was born. A wonderkid. I brilliant talent with potential to take over the cinematic world.
And he's doing just that.
The fact that I Killed My Mother started with a 16-year-old child star with an idea and the guts to ask for some help is quite beautiful, when you think about it. Son of a school teacher and a actor/singer, Dolan was a feature in film at a young age, but it wasn't until he got the courage to walk up to Anne Dorval, a staple of Canadian television, and hand her a script that his career became something. Dorval has recounted how it was Dolan's obvious anxiety over approaching her that warmed her enough to read his script, which she liked, but that wasn't even the script they went with (nor the idea). No, by the time she had contacted Dolan about his screenplay, he'd already ditched that idea and moved on to something grander; a semi-autobiography about his relationship with his mother in the wake of his coming out.
And that is where I Killed My Mother comes in.
Dolan's directorial debut ignited Cannes and won three awards (Art Cinema, Prix Regards Jeunes & SACD), but more importantly, it ignited a fire in the young auteur and what has come out of his since has been nothing short of remarkable.
But, like John etched out in his guidelines for this blogathon, this isn't about whether one likes a certain movie or not (and honestly, while I appreciate and like I Killed My Mother, it is my least favorite Dolan film), but this is about outlining the beginnings of an auteur. What makes Dolan an auteur? What does this debut film say about it's author.
Now, I've been down this road here before. In my open letter to Xavier Dolan, I spelled out why I believe he's an auteur, and I've reviewed his debut film, I Killed My Mother, last year. But, it's not like this all doesn't bare repeating, so I might as well hash it all out again.
For me, the first thing that stands out so vividly about I Killed My Mother is the fact that it is so personal. Achingly personal, to be honest. Dolan BLEEDS all over this film, from the writing to the performance he leaves as the film's protagonist, Hubert. This is also my first point with regards to Dolan's auteur status. That isn't to say that autobiographical films automatically make someone an auteur. Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is, in many ways, an autobiographical film and yet I don't consider Crowe an auteur. He's a talented (sometimes) director, but not an auteur. Lots of directors have drawn from their own experiences to make films, especially debut films, with some sort of passion.
But, let's be honest; many of these films could have been made by anyone, and at times could have been made BETTER by someone else.
I Killed My Mother is not a film anyone else could have made. It isn't just the personal aspects (although those help), but everything that Dolan pours into this film is so ingrained in who he is as a person that the film (and those to follow) are extensions of his very own person.
And the personal touches don't stop with one film. No, Dolan gives of his soul in every film he makes. His sophomore film, Heartbeats, conveyed so much internalized confliction based on obvious draws to his own personal experiences that it elevated a rather simple concept that, in the wrong hands could have been milked for any cheap excitement possible, and made it something that felt so raw and so honest. His lifestyle, that of a young gay man, also plays heavily into his subjects, as he tenderly and honestly deals with many aspects of acceptance, both personal and societal, and the depth of impact his films have can be attributed to his obvious personal relationship to the themes.
He knows what he's talking about, but more importantly, he knows HOW he wants to talk about it.
And that leads me to my next point.
Dolan infused undeniable style into every frame of his masterpieces. He paints with such strong, loud, vibrant colors. Now, style can be a detriment to a film if it serves as window dressing or a 'distraction' from the lack of substance. What makes Dolan's work so outstanding is that the style serves as an embellishment, a compliment OF that substance. Yes, Dolan has been criticized for being 'too stylish', and I Killed My Mother is a film that reflects that criticism, but the true sign of an auteur is the ability to progress in your talents, honing your abilities to strike the appropriate balance.
Better to have too many ideas and learn how to restrain them effectively than to have too few ideas and struggle to find ways to express yourself.
In preparation for this project, I watched Dolan's debut back to back with his latest masterpiece, Mommy, and watching them together really highlighted how well Dolan has been able to hone and perfect his talents. I Killed My Mother was a pedal to the medal expression of Dolan's troubled relationship with his mother. Mommy develops a lot of the same themes and yet it does so with a sharper, more focused and confident approach. Mommy still swells with pop music and heightened emotional segments, operatic intensity, bright splashes of color and exaggerated realities and yet it does so with more astute understanding of tone and pace.
It also seems so appropriate that, at this current moment, Dolan's career bookends both deal so passionately with the mother/son relationship.
Lastly, Dolan has presented himself as a modern auteur because he makes films that live inside of YOU. Yes, they are a part of him, but they live in you, and here's why.
Dolan creates human films with universal themes. He attaches himself to stories about people and relationships, healthy and dangerous, and dissects them in a way that reaches into the pit of the audiences soul and stirs in them something profoundly understanding. Xavier Dolan makes films that help us understand ourselves and those around us.
Whether he's addressing the gender identity of his protagonist, like he did in the astonishing Laurence Anyways, or deftly maneuvering us through the emotions of a man grieving the loss of his lover (as in Tom at the Farm), Dolan makes these very specific stories feel more widely poignant. We can see ourselves in Laurence Alia's struggle to find his own identity. We can feel the abandonment and need to fill that void (no matter how unhealthy) that faces Tom in the wake of his lover's death. We can place ourselves in the emotion struggle to love, accept and help that Die is facing as her son Steve wrecks havoc on her life. We can feel these things because Dolan so richly colors in their stories that they become so much more than a singular story; they become expressions of life in general.
They crawl beneath our skin and take root in our heart and move us to a profound understanding that we didn't even know we could attain.
Dolan isn't satisfied with just making movies. He's not concerned with being 'employed' as much as he's determined to express his passion, and that is the makings of a true auteur. He has a point of view, he has a message, he has a point and he has the talent to make it a reality. He's painting with all the colors of the rainbow, spilling his own blood all over the screen and delivering films, stories, moments that are, in a word, unforgettable.
You can't shake him.
In just six years Dolan has delivered to us five incredibly diverse and expressive films that have carved out for us his talent and range. He's premiered at Cannes four of those times, I Killed My Mother premiering at the Director's Fortnight and snagging, as previously mentioned, three awards. Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways competed in the Un Certain Regard section of the competition, Heartbeats winning top prize and Laurence Anyways snagging an acting award for Clement. And then Mommy not only premiered at Cannes but competed for the Palm, settling for the Jury Prize (which he shared with French New Wave LEGEND Jean-Luc Godard) and cemented Dolan's status as one of the most important and influential directors of our time.
He's here to stay, but more importantly he's here to change cinema. We need more voices like Xavier Dolan!