Raw as an open wound, the films of Quebec’s Xavier Dolan marry the go-for-broke exuberance of a young man with the control of a master. Mommy, his chronicle of the turbulent relationship between an unhinged teenager (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and his brash single mother (Anne Dorval), is framed against a fictional Canadian law in which parents can disown their misbehaving kids. Shot in a perfectly square aspect ratio that makes the film look like an Instagram photo, Mommy would be a sensational effort from a director of any age.
But Dolan is 25. And if that weren't impressive enough, it's already his fifth feature–and his fourth to premiere at Cannes. We recently sat down with the excitable kid (who'd rather talk Titanic than Jean-Luc Godard) in a swank Soho hotel to see what we could learn about the most preternaturally talented filmmaker since Orson Welles.
He doesn't do his homework. I remember when I showed Tom at the Farm to [Mommy actor] Suzanne Clément. She was living at my place at the time, and we had a blast spending Christmas together watching all of Friday Night Lights and a lot of Hitchcock films, because I had seen none. She was like, "Um, you’ve done a movie that seems very inspired by Hitchcock, and when people ask you about it, you can’t tell them you haven’t seen any Hitchcock, because you will look stupid. So let’s go to the video store and buy you a box set."
He doesn't obey the law. Correctional centers do not expel kids, but that isn’t the case in Mommy. I realized that I could either do a movie that was realistic or I could tell the story I wanted to tell, which was one of motherly love. I didn’t want to get into courts and police officers—we actually shot those scenes and left them out, because they felt very contrived. I wasn’t shooting a documentary. There was a part of me that wanted to avoid people who would say, "This is not how it happened!" I was like, Okay, let’s shut them down and set the movie in a fictional Canada.
His new movie looks like an Instagram photo. This is my most emotional film, for sure. The idea was always that Mommy would try to attain an obvious emotional arc of implosion—that it would be centered and driven and my flourishes would be left aside for this project. The 1:1 aspect ratio was used to avoid distractions.
He likes to work with his friends. Often when I watch a film with a weak performance, I feel like an actor had great ideas and maybe their director was awestruck by their name or something. I know my actors in real life. I know who they are, and I use that as a tool, because it’s useful to know how someone laughs in life or how someone cries. And then you can help push them a little further away from who they are in real life, because acting isn’t about surprising other people—it’s about surprising yourself. And me.
He doesn't feel the need to apologize for his early work. In the Cannes press notes for Mommy, I wrote that I Killed My Mother was a misinterpreted love letter to my mom, and I’ve regretted that note ever since. I said that I felt like I had to kill my mother in the first opus, and that in this new one I felt like I was avenging her. But Mommy was not made as a response to I Killed My Mother. They have nothing to do with one another. They are diametrically opposed in tone, in style, in color, in light, in background, in conflict, in social strata—even in how the crisis in one film is completely anecdotal, and the other is absolutely existential. The clash in I Killed My Mother is trivial: It’s people fighting because one of them has crumbs of bread stuck in the corners of her mouth.
He doesn't take himself seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, and none of the people who work with me take themselves seriously. And if they do, we don’t work together again, because there’s no point in taking yourself seriously. The movie will be serious in the end, perhaps, but there’s no time for ego.
He wants you to tell him how you really feel. It can be hard to hear that your idea is stupid. But that’s better than people overprotecting you and respecting you too much to tell you that you are being over-the-top. Because everybody will tell you the truth when the movie comes out eight months later. Sometimes you see films, and it’s just like, "Did anyone tell these people the truth?" You can’t create alone. You just can’t. Movies are not paintings, they’re not photography. If you create for yourself in an egotistical way, it’s just shit.