At 31, Québécois auteur Xavier Dolan has had a career most indie filmmakers would take a lifetime to build. He has made eight films in a decade, starting at 19, and acted in Hollywood ventures like Boy Erased (2018) and It Chapter Two (2019). At 20, his directorial début, I Killed My Mother (2009), took him to Cannes, a film festival he has frequented several times since with movies like Laurence Anyways (2012) and Mommy (2014) (he shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard).
His latest, Matthias & Maxime , in which he plays one of the titular roles, premièred at the French Riviera last year. Dolan arrived on the festival radar as a precocious voice and was immediately embraced by critics and programmers for his infectious and fresh energy. The early success was followed by critics mauling his later films like It’s Only the End of the World (2016) and The Death & Life of John F. Donovan (2018), provoking the filmmaker to publicly speak out against the “culture of trolling, bullying, and unwanted hatred”. Not known to take too many breaks, Dolan said in an interview to Vogue last year, that he developed “several drug addictions” in the months he had off between Heartbeats (2010) and Lawrence Anyways , which he said he was “now cured of”.
Matthias & Maxime is a return to a world most familiar to him — Québec. The film, lauded for its strong performances and emotional power, drops on Mubi India on August 28. It competed for the Palme d’Or, delving into the questions of latent attraction and homo-eroticism among male friends. Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Dolan) kiss for a student short film, unearthing a world of emotions and attraction they hadn’t experienced before.
Excerpts from an interview.
The film, in many ways, takes you back to Quebec, exploring the fluidity of friendship and sexuality. How much of this film is personal?
They’re all personal at some level. But that doesn’t mean they’re stories or experiences I’ve lived out. Some characters, some storylines can sometimes be very close to me and things I’ve seen, heard, witnessed, and some others completely romanticised or fictional. I write films with everything that comes to mind and that means fiction and reality are bound to intertwine.
Matthias & Maxime , as most of your work, has a sizeable presence of pop music. What is your process of selection for your films?
More now than before, I like to pick music that my characters would listen to. This, rather than grabbing a few titles from my own library and simply ditching them into the film randomly for my personal pleasure. Also, I try to have music play in scenes rather than onto scenes, so in a way that’s diegetic rather than non-diegetic.
Alongside self-discovery, the movie is about sexual identity and unrequited love. Are you fascinated by ambiguity and unhappy endings?
Do you consider the ending to be unhappy? I think it’s actually quite optimistic! But yes, I am fascinated by ambiguity, of course. And contradictions, irony, absurdity. They’re all so rewarding narratively speaking.
- I’m still flummoxed by the fact that gay people insist on being the only legitimate choice to play gay characters.
- Does that mean, if we’re being fair, that as a gay man I’ll never get to play straight characters? Or should the industry just accept that gay people are entitled to more opportunities than straight actors because we’ve been struggling for years to build careers that seem destined to failure because of our sexual identity?
- There is no right answer. I’m just thinking out loud.
With conversations around authenticity in cinema being the hot topic, what’s your view on the discussion about trans/queer actors playing queer/trans characters?
Oooh, here comes trouble! Trans actors deserve opportunity. We’re talking about gender rather than sexual identity. So yes, trans actors should play trans characters. Had I been more aware and educated in 2012, I would have cast a trans actor for the part of Laurence, in Laurence Anyways . The conversation has evolved so much since. However, I’m still flummoxed by the fact that gay people insist on being the only legitimate choice to play gay characters. Does that mean, if we’re being fair, that as a gay man I’ll never get to play straight characters? Or should the industry just accept that gay people are entitled to more opportunities than straight actors because we’ve been struggling for years to build careers that seem destined to failure because of our sexual identity? There is no right answer. I’m just thinking out loud.
What has been the biggest learning for you as an actor who directs himself?
Although it’s almost impossible when you direct a film and act in it as well, the key is to stay in character as much as you can. I’m excited to explore more of that in the next few years. It seems like an obvious truth, but not if you’ve never entirely believed in the process in the first place.
You’ve made eight films in a decade, starting at 19. With a lot of critical praise and then some flak for your latter films, how do you drown out the noise and expectations?
Drugs, of course! But seriously, there seems to be no way. We all want to be loved and approved. Some films, I didn’t read anything at all. And I have to say, I was relieved. Not to know. Not to hurt. Some others, I just needed to know! And then I hurt. But the more I go, the more I accept I cannot please everyone, and strive to simply make films that feel meaningful or useful, rather than simply good or bad or impressive.
The pandemic has forced several filmmakers to look at an online distribution model, with some raising the alarm bells for the future of cinema halls. How do you see the future of cinema, especially for independent films?
I was already worried for theatres much before the pandemic. But I wonder if now it hasn’t sealed its destiny. I just really hope we still have a place where we can regroup and enjoy stories together. If we lose that, then, apart from sports in stadiums, I don’t know where we can collectively enjoy something together.
You started as an actor and you said you want to gravitate more towards acting now. What gets you excited about a script?
Transformation and challenges, of course, but more so, good, strong writing and dialogue.
What are the films you’re working on now?
A mini-series. I’m also adapting a French horror short story set in the late 1800’s and working on a new script. Trying to keep myself busy and be ready to jump in with both feet whenever I can work again.
Lastly, for someone who has seemingly worked incessantly in the last decade, has the pandemic been a time for you to hibernate and recharge your creativity?
Sort of, yes. I crave creation and being around the people I love. At the same time, I’m enjoying this odd disconnection.