The title of this post may have more than a few people worried, not least of whom would be my progenitor, but rest assured that the title refers to the film that closed this year’s Possible Worlds Canadian Film Festival in Sydney. Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan was only 19 at the time of writing, shooting and starring in his debut film J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), which won three awards during the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2009. Dolan has caused further buzz at this year’s Sydney Film Festival by winning the Official Competition with his second film, Heartbeats.
Hubert (Dolan) is a 16-year-old Québécois in Montreal who has a difficult relationship with his mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). He doesn’t even hide his contempt for her gaudy taste in fashion and home decoration, shouting bile at her at any given opportunity. She does not make life easy for him either, showing apparent indifference to anything Hubert does or wants, and randomly changing her mind on things she has just agreed to. Hubert struggles to open-up to his mother, unable to tell her he is gay nor completely tear himself away from her. When his behaviour becomes unbearable, Hubert’s mother and estranged father agree to send him away to boarding school, although this simply confuses his already troubled relationship with his mother and himself.
Former child-actor Dolan’s debut film is clearly a personal piece, with a number of semi-autobiographical elements making it into the narrative. For a debut feature, this is a very self-assured film. Dolan captures both sides of an incredibly complex relationship, a terrific achievement given that neither character is particularly easy to like. Yet through all of the bitterness, there is also a great deal of humour balancing out the darkness. Hubert’s imaginary rages in which he smashes crockery usually result in a quick tidy up afterwards, while Chantale’s penchant for bringing home animal print light shades may be all too familiar for some children. There are moments when we fail to comprehend how either character is able to go on living with the other, and others when there are genuinely touching. Chantale’s screeching reprimand of a boarding school official who deigns to question her parenting is a powerhouse scene from Dorval, and shows the first real sign of affection from mother to child. Even this is tinged with humour.
While not all parental relationships may be as extreme as this one, all of us can relate on some level to feeling angst towards their parental units. That said, there are times when both characters need to be slapped over the backs of the head for pig-headed behaviour. Yet the core of I Killed My Mother is a sweet, beautifully shot film that is artistic without pretension. It may not always seem to be headed anywhere, but will stay with you for some time. Dolan is still only young, but if his body of work to date is any guide, we are witnessing the birth of a bold new voice.
I Killed My Mother will be released theatrically in Australia in 2011 from Madman Entertainment. Make sure you don’t miss it when it comes to your local cinema. Overall rating: ★★★★