I Killed My Mother

Xavier Dolan. 19 years old when he wrote and directed I Killed My Mother! Instiller of fear and jealousy into the hearts of men and women alike!

Dolan is a boy of honesty, a boy of spite. A boy who loves pieces to camera, but only if he’s allowed to do them naked and black and white in his bathroom.

I Killed My Mother is a pretty good movie, but it’s rough around the edges and its protagonist is misplaced. There’s one great character here, but her whiney idiot foil has been mistakenly made the lead in her place.

Hubert (Xavier Dolan) is a closeted sixteen year old. He hates his mother. That’s it.

I Killed My Mother is about a young man’s (ill defined) issues with his mother, whom he spends all of his time yelling at unless he wants something, which is when he turns sweet. She is sometimes childish in her retaliation, but she puts up with a lot from him. As Chantal Lemming, Anne Dorval is superb. She hits every note perfectly and takes a lot in her stride. She’s a true joy to watch.

Dolan is a good enough actor but one wonders how much the audience is expected to tolerate: after all, he’s not our son. Are we supposed to sympathise? On one level this is a coming out/coming of age film, and certain demos (ie me) can identify with that, but none of us wants to believe that we were such big jerks about the whole thing.

If Heartbeats was Dolan’s “awesome to look at” film, I Killed My Mother is his “intermittently feel at” movie. It’s easy to see why it garnered attention, because it is fairly well crafted, but there’s no real beauty or vibrancy to it. One thing is for certain, though, from both: Dolan has a future in making films about women. As he loved Chokri in Heartbeats, here he loves Dorval. She is a stand out and the movie plainly wouldn’t work without her. While some characters like Hubert well enough, others feel like they are burdened by their love for him.

Dorval is above all of that. She owns this movie. One of her prime scenes is conducted in a ridiculous top: the camera on her, no one else, as she talks into a phone.  At its aerodynamic conclusion, the audience broke into sporadic applause (in Australia, we generally don’t clap at movies unless they’re guest screenings or for nerds).

I Killed My Mother is imperfect: Hubert is called out on the fact that he defines himself by his hatred of his mother, in a stunning display of self-awareness on the part of Dolan, and it feels much longer than it actually is. At the point where I thought it might wrap up, a whole new act unfurled. With this new act comes some of the film’s most powerful material, including the aforementioned phone scene, but the balance is shifted too strongly in Hubert’s direction and it is here that we can understand how self-important the character truly is. Hubert’s tantrums are initially funny but they become repetitive and wear thin, until you just want Chantal to give him the slap he rightly deserves.

The men next to me said at the end that their favourite part was, to my eyes, the most cliché. To compound the insult they misquoted it so that it no longer made any sense. True, it was an effective cliché (if you’re going to use them…), but to single it out as the film’s greatest moment seems wrong.

I Killed My Mother is a prime example of how two entirely opposing characters can work in tandem to create a heartfelt but frustrating movie. Without Dolan’s Hubert you would have a freewheeling, independent spirit in Chantal, but she’d have nothing to butt against her. You’d be without a movie.  True, you’d almost be better off, but it wouldn’t quite work.

Dolan has thus far made two very different films, but their shared strength is in their devotion and respect to his female characters. If Dolan can continue on those lines, he could have a long and successful career ahead of him.

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