Want to become an instant expert in our filmmaker of the month without committing yourself to an entire filmography? Then you need the Hell Is For Hyphenates Cheat Sheet: we program you a double feature that will not only make for a great evening’s viewing, but will bring you suitably up-to-speed before our next episode lands…
HEARTBEATS (2010) and MOMMY (2014)
Prolific though Xavier Dolan is, we are (we hope) just at the beginning his career, and only his first six feature films are currently out in the world. This makes a cheat sheet slightly limiting, but not impossible. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that watching any two Dolan films would give you a comprehensive understanding of his work and style, so there are really no wrong answers. But we’ve chosen to kick the evening off with Heartbeats, a drama masquerading as a romcom, about two friends – a straight woman and a gay man – in love with the same bloke. Dolan’s sophomore feature is an angsty, unafraid, and very funny work that was the perfect follow-up to his debut, demonstrating a consistency in style, and range in both subject and genre. Follow that up with Mommy, a film set in an alternate version of Canada, in which parents can legally commit troublesome children to hospitals. It follows Die, her son Steve, and their neighbor Kyla, and the unlikely relationship that forms between them as they struggle for some sort of normalcy. If this sounds like your run-of-the-mill dour drama, that’s sort-of the point. It’s a film that lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a brutal domestic watch, then grips you with seductive montages and truly cinematic filmmaking that – tautological though that may be – make this drama soar far beyond what Hitchcock called “photographs of people talking”. It’s one film we would urge you to see on the big screen if the opportunity ever arises. Watch these two films back to back, and you’ll be left with a proper understanding of why everyone’s been raving about Dolan for the past ten years.
Substitutions: If you can’t get or have already seen Heartbeats, seek out Tom At the Farm (2013). Like Heartbeats, this film features Dolan in a starring role, and follows city boy Tom is visiting the rural family of his deceased partner, soon finding himself in a strange, abusive, and very mysterious family dynamic. If you can’t get or have already seen Mommy, get your hands on I Killed My Mother (2009). Dolan’s debut feature is basically the prototype of Mommy, but from the point-of-view of the son instead of the mother. It’s a remarkably assured work for anyone, let alone a 19-year-old embarking on his first film.
The Hidden Gem: Want to see something off the beaten path, a title rarely mentioned when people talk about the films of Xavier Dolan? Then you should track down It’s Only the End of the World (2016). This is hardly a forgotten Dolan film, but it’s perhaps his most controversial, dividing Dolan fans right down the middle. Some see it as being too far removed from his own voice (it was, like Tom at the Farm, adapted from someone else’s work), whereas others consider it to be entirely consistent with the themes and tone of Dolan’s previous work. Don’t be left out of the debate – watch it now and take a side!
Go Watch Laurence Anyways: As we said earlier, only six films are available, and the method of constructing this cheat sheet meant we ended up leaving out what is arguably Dolan’s most acclaimed work. So here’s a new category to make sure nobody writes in. Go watch Laurence Anyways.
The next episode of Hell Is For Hyphenates, featuring Stephen A Russell talking the films of Xavier Dolan, will be released on 31 January 2019.