The tangled mess of rebellious youth has long offered a wellspring of inspiration for filmmakers – François Truffaut’s first feature The 400 Blows, for one, introduced one of the cinema’s most influential voices with a semi-autobiographical reminiscence of his own growing pains in Paris (and featuring a group of characters he returned to for four subsequent sequels). Following a similar path, Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s debut film J’ai tué ma mere (I Killed My Mother) acts as a modern update of The 400 Blows, albeit it one produced, directed, and starring a filmmaker while still in his teens himself.
Gay teenager Hubert Minel (Dolan) and his single mother Chantale (Anne Dorval) live in a cramped house in modern day Quebec, their daily interactions composed of bitter arguing and spiteful commentary. Dolan presents both characters to us as flawed individuals – surprisingly, we feel for the mother just as often as we do for Hubert. Where Hubert’s aggression is fully surface, screamed into his mother’s poker face, Chantale is passive aggressive to the point of suffocating. Dolan’s greatest trick, however, is in transforming what initially plays out as repetitive shouting matches between two relatively unlikable characters into a uniquely human portrait of mother-son dynamics.
While Dolan has been quoted as not intending I Killed My Mother as an entry into the gay film canon, the revealing of his own sexuality via the on-edge Hubert marks one of the most honest portrayals of young queer identity on screen. And while Hubert’s queerness is undoubtedly a major defining point of I Killed My Mother’s impact, it is also one left decidedly unquestioned. While his relationship with his mother is the definition of dysfunctional, Hubert’s scenes with his first boyfriend Antonin (François Arnaud) display a warmth and connection lacking elsewhere in his life.
Lacking a father figure for much of his life (Pierre Chagnon appears late in the film as Chantale’s final resort for assistance; his departure after Hubert’s birth summed up as “fatherhood just wasn’t his thing”), Hubert’s difficult transference into manhood isn’t one blamed on the single-parent home in which he lives. Instead, Dolan’s script mentions on several occasions how the Minel family is “different” from the lives of “other kids.” All families work by different rules – no two are the same – and a major point of contention between mother and son in this case is either party’s sheer inability to accommodate the other’s viewpoints on just how this particular family should operate.
That’s not to say there isn’t a warm heart at the center of I Killed My Mother. Dorval’s climactic outburst via telephone to a misogynist headmaster at Hubert’s boarding school (further shades of The 400 Blows) is a revelatory moment on behalf of all single mothers. And while neither character gives much warmth to the other directly, Dolan peppers the script with moments of heartbreaking gestures gone un-noticed. In one, Hubert asks his mother what she would do were he to die that very day. Watching him walk off into the distance and out of ear-shot, she quietly sighs, “I’d die tomorrow.”
Watching I Killed My Mother, Dolan’s filmmaking influences are often easy to catch. Motifs and visual styling calling upon Gus van Sant, Ingmar Bergman, and Wong Kar Wai are plentiful, yet accomplished beautifully in their own right. While some have taken these easily-spotted references as points to criticize, I’d argue instead that Dolan is filtering through what inspires and is actively shaping him as an artist in the same way that Hubert absorbs Cocteau’s writings and the James Dean posters on his boyfriend’s wall as part of his entrance into adulthood. There are flaws, to be sure, yet they are all simply overcome by the time of I Killed My Mother’s masterful finale.
Dolan came home from last year’s Cannes film festival with no less than four trophies under his arm – an auspicious start for a filmmaker so young. Yet, what emerges most strongly from I Killed My Mother is the arrival of a major talent in world cinema, joining the lineage of not only Quebec’s finest filmmakers, but the world’s as well.