The fragility of self-discovery

In the evolution of contemporary queer narratives and discourse, Xavier Dolan’s latest film Matthias & Maxime is lagging behind in topicality

August 21, 2020 12:46 am | Updated 12:46 am IST

Avalanche of emotions:  A still from the film.

Avalanche of emotions: A still from the film.

It only takes a trigger to unleash an avalanche of suppressed emotions, or feelings previously unknown. Xavier Dolan’s return to his hometown, Quebec, a turf he is evidently most comfortable in, taps into one such instance, which can alter your life drastically.

In Matthias & Maxime , two old friends kiss for a student short film, initially as a joke and a bet. This kiss defines the course of the film and lingers around like a ghost, yet Dolan curiously opts not to show this very moment. The intent perhaps was to build up the tension, among both the characters and the audience, till a point where they kiss again, this time voluntarily and passionately.

The centre-stage

This second kiss is given centre-stage and shot beautifully through a rain-soaked window, their hands pressed against the foggy glass. The wait was well worth it and the intensity can be felt. But that’s probably the only highlight of the film, which otherwise has very little to say, let alone anything new.

The film feels a tad dated. Especially for someone like Dolan, who we expect to shake us out of our langour with his riveting energy and make us see a new aspect of human behaviour. At 31, he is already a decade into filmmaking and a wunderkind at festivals, and is perhaps now mellowing down.

Matthias & Maxime , his latest, which competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and took him back to the French Riviera, tepidly delves into the questions of latent attraction and homoeroticism among male friends. It’s something we’ve seen before aplenty. Marco Berger’s Plan B (2009), instantly comes to mind. In the evolution of contemporary queer narratives and discourse, this film is lagging behind in topicality. But it’s not to say that this aspect of the human psyche is unimportant; it’s just not that the compelling any more when the discussion has moved on.

What Dolan does successfully with Matthias & Maxime is he manages to make you feel for the two men. Despite a lack of urgency or even a clear perspective in the film, the central characters, played by Dolan and Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas, have a certain tenderness to them. They are almost like two lost puppies, dealing with their own demons.

Dolan as Maxime has a peculiar birthmark on his face, which is never a subject of discussion until one point when the tension between the two men peaks. He has a tumultuous relationship with his abusive mother. Matthias, on the other hand, has a mellow and bland personality, fighting internalised heteronormativity. The two characters stand in contrast with each other but also adequately complement each other.

Maxime plans to move to Australia and the film chronicles the run-up to his departure. With the anxiety of separation, there is also the nervousness of newfound discovery. But it’s not like the film has anything substantial to say about unrequited love, like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011), where the finality of time pushes the two protagonists to accelerate their process of discovery — of both self and the other. Matthias & Maxime stretches in all directions and is unable to focus on any one aspect, including the coming-of-age arc. The ambiguity of sexual orientation is such a complex and fascinating subject. There’s so much distraction that Dolan never settles down to discuss the fluidity of attraction, instead we see a lot happening that takes away from the two central characters.

The finer details

Quebec being Dolan’s home ground, he brings out the finer details, like the French-English repartee and embellishes the film with his signature touch of pop music and references. He can handle chaotic party scenes (and there are plenty of them) with ease. André Turpin’s camerawork captured in 35mm is captivating and in parts beautiful to look at. The manner in which Dolan captures the space and the people who inhabit it, points out how personal this project is. The sense of comfort and familiarity shows. One can see how deeply affecting this subject of friendship, unrequited love and attraction is to the Canadian filmmaker-actor. Even though it’s not fully actualised, the sentiment can be felt.

Matthias & Maxime will drop on Mubi on August 28.

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