Xavier Dolan returns to his Québécois roots in this soulful ballad about male friendship and unspoken desire.
It’s 10 years since Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother premiered at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar. It won three prizes, received international acclaim, and announced its multi-hyphenate director-writer-star (just 20 at the time) as one to watch. In 2019 with a further seven films under his belt (four of which also premiered at Cannes), he’s older, wiser, but no less earnest.
His return to the south of France comes after taking his previous film to Toronto International Film Festival last September where it received a chilly reception, but Xavier has always been a pro at dusting himself off and trying again. If The Death and Life of John F Donovan was a patchy rebel yell stand against his critics, Matthias and Maxime feels like something more grounded and decidedly more mature.
Going back to his Québécois roots, the film also marks a return to acting in his own work for Dolan, who last did so in 2013’s Tom at the Farm. As Maxime Leduc, he’s a young, slightly directionless but sensitive soul, beaten down by life and his domineering addict mother. He has a kindred spirit in his best friend Matthias Ruiz (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), a talented but often self-serious lawyer. Among their rag-tag group of loud friends, they drink and smoke and generally have a good time, until the pair are gently coerced into starring in a friend’s sister’s student film, which prompts them to reevaluate their relationship in light of the scene they share.
It’s familiar territory for Dolan, whose films always deal with masculinity and sexuality, but while his past work has veered into melodrama and sometimes felt self-conscious to the point of distraction, there’s an easy confidence to his latest effort. Dolan does his best acting work to date as Max, his performance soulful and delicate without ever tipping into self-indulgence. As so much of the relationship between Max and Matthias is about what the pair don’t say to each other, Dolan and Freitas focus on expressionism; a lingering stare, a frustrated carding of hands through hair.
There’s an interesting dichotomy between the film’s use of Québécois and English; English is the language of the younger, more affluent characters, who see it as a way to set themselves apart from the pack. For Max, escape comes in the form of a potential way out of town, but failure to communicate – literally and figuratively – constantly looms large. Dolan focuses on the aching vulnerability of his subjects, primarily how they struggle to articulate feelings they don’t have the language for.
It’s also Dolan’s funniest film to date, less maudlin and tragic – relaxed, as though he is finally starting to take deep breaths. Characters joke about Harry Potter, trade childish insults; moreover, they all seem so at home with each other. That’s no accident of course. Framed with the intimacy of a home video, the camera zooms in and out like an old school Sony camcorder, capturing fleeting glances and second guesses, the manic energy of a house party in full-swing.
“We’re all animals,” remarks McAfee, a scuzzy lawyer played to perfection by Harris Dickinson. After a decade of pain and glory in the unforgiving world of film, Dolan understands this, but he’s always been free and open with his emotions, unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. This tenderness shines through in Matthias and Maxime, which reflects the agony and the ecstasy of being young and reckless with such eloquence, and reminds us that Dolan at his best is a sublimely talented artist.
Published 23 May 2019
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