There’s a fantasy sequence in “J’ai Tué Ma Mère” (“I Killed My Mother”) that single-handedly makes the film worth seeing: 16-year-old gay student Hubert Minel (Xavier Dolan) chases his mother Chantale (Anne Dorval) through a serene autumn wood. He’s dressed as a groom, and her white bridal gown billows about as she retreats from his outstretched hand in slow motion, looking back apprehensively as her son tumbles to the forest floor. It’s a genuinely inventive, surreal, hilariously screwed up moment in a film that often tries a bit too hard to be inventive, surreal and hilariously screwed up.
Dolan, now 21, also wrote and directed “J’ai Tué Ma Mère,” a semi-autobiographical story of a torrid mother/son relationship. How does a young gay man feel about his mother? Depends on the man, depends on the mother. Chantale could have easily been portrayed as domineering, icy and judgmental. But things aren’t that simple; instead, a lot of the film’s conflict rises out of Hubert’s inner turmoil, a combination of budding homosexuality and outright teenage rebellion. Most of the time, Chantale just happens to be in the way.
For a while, the antagonism is a bit of a bore. Because Hubert is observant and quick witted, his observations of his mother’s eating habits and her tendency to forget their conversations are meant to be taken humourously, but Hubert is so relentlessly cruel toward her that it comes off as a lot of smart-assed nonsense. Hubert’s father (Pierre Chagnon) is largely absent, appearing only to enforce a decision that his son be sent away to boarding school. A high school teacher named Julie (Suzanne Clément) attempts to encourage Hubert down the right path, but frets for her job when they get too close.
Very gradually, the pull of identification shifts away from Chantale, whose maiden name “Lemming” is indicative of her superficial concerns over a jacket that will match a grape broach and a fake tan that will turn her too-white skin a healthier colour. Hubert and his mother feud like lovers. Neither is perfect, but they’re stuck with each other. Their attitudes alter instantaneously. Hubert seems to have inherited her bipolar disorder. Furious and petty arguments suddenly lapse into non-committal and ironic declarations of love. As Hubert, Dolan videotapes himself speaking to the camera and smoking, relating every last bit of psychological malaise that living with his mother has inflicted upon him as though he is taking a break and handing over directorial duties on his film to Sigmund Freud.
Chantale is unaware of Hubert’s involvement with another boy (François Arnaud) until the boy’s mother (Patricia Tulasne) accidentally lets it slip. Finding out about her son’s homosexuality from anyone but Hubert wounds her deeply, but pride and confusion keep her from communicating it until absolutely necessary. Dolan paces his film well in this regard, stripping back the layers of their relationship one sharp petal at a time. It’s not that Chantale is a bad mother, only one who is disappointed in the continual loss of what she’s always regarded as “normal.” In life’s multiple-choice surveys, she’d be the one most likely to pick “C.”
Dolan has written a solid script, if too gimmicky at times. Characters quote texts obsessively, still images are meant to convey faulty textbook impressions of normalcy and words from books, letters and text messages appear stamped on top of shots. The latter are distracting presences that are meant to spark emotional responses when a conversation would have done just fine. But certain scenes, such as one in which Chantale berates a boarding school headmaster for suggesting that Hubert is in need of a male presence at home, are masterfully written. Dolan is clearly a thinker and passionate about the social issues he’s dealing with, never cheapening them with embarrassing clichés or overly sincere bits of preaching.
At such an age, Dolan is still too young a filmmaker to escape his self-indulgences entirely, but he shows incredible promise as a director. His first feature, “J’ai Tué Ma Mère” is a good film, unique, belligerent, cockeyed and ultimately kind of sweet. And what about that bride and groom fantasy? Hubert is still attached to the memories of family he carries with him, thoughts of spaghetti dinners and geese flying low across the cottage lake, but every idea of family he once had has changed. Beyond his mental roadblocks is the acceptance of who he is and of the bond he shares with his mother. Like any other teenage male, gay or straight, he simply has some growing up to do.
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