Cannes 2019 review: Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan)

There comes a time in a filmmaker’s career when he may feel that he needs to try to stretch himself creatively: perhaps he has already mastered a specific narrative sensibility with which he has become inextricably associated, and maybe in returning to familiar themes and formal touches he risks repeating himself? Matthias & Maxime, Québécois director Xavier Dolan’s eighth feature film, sees him dialing back the romantic hyperbole of his earlier features in an attempt to cultivate a new voice by which to express himself artistically.

Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Xavier Dolan) have been the best of friends since they were small children, but now they are about to be separated once Maxime leaves the country for Australia with a two-year work visa. Months before Maxime is to leave, during the tertiary stages of planning this trip, the two young adults join a number of their friends for an evening at a family cottage. The younger sister of their host arrives midway through the evening, complaining (in heavily accented Québécois French punctuated by the odd phrase in broken English) that her friends have ditched her, when they were supposed to act in an experimental short film that she would direct. None of the young men in the room are particularly eager to volunteer as replacements, and after losing a bet, Matthias and Maxime find themselves the new stars of a one-minute short. To their dismay, their task is to kiss on camera. As they lean in for that kiss, the shot cuts to black and this moment is played off screen.

Months later, it seems as though the two have distanced themselves from each other: Matthias is determined to advance his career in a law firm; Maxime focuses his energy on preparing to leave for Australia, while caring for and managing the finances of his recovering addict mother (Anne Dorval), who still begins her day lighting up a cigarette and cracking open a can of beer. Both Matthias and Maxime certainly have practical reasons that keep them from spending as much time together as they used to, but it is almost immediately apparent that the real barrier is a reluctance for either of them to open up and talk about the confusing emotions that surfaced with their kiss. A week before Maxime’s departure, Matthias’s mother throws a party in Maxime’s honour, to celebrate his upcoming voyage. Matthias is expected to give a speech, but has nothing prepared, and his awkward delivery embarrasses everyone in the room. Later, the poor timing of Maxime whispering into a friend’s ear during a game of charades results in an over-reaction from Matthias who accuses Maxime of cheating, an inevitable explosion after having suppressed his reactions for so long. The ice is broken: now the two friends must finally sort out the implications of what happened between them months before.

It is unfortunate that the kiss between Matthias and Maxime early into the film is used as a framing device: it sets up the encounter to be a major catalyst for the plot, when in fact it is barely directly or indirectly acknowledged until almost an hour and a half deep into the film. The space in between these moments could have used for private meditations on what they are feeling, but their emotions are all but totally ignored until they can no longer avoid them, or because finally something dramatic and noteworthy must happen in this movie. Until then, the film is occupied with filler scenes sharing their screen time with minor players that do not add much to the development of their characters’ sense of tension.

Apart from the central relationship between Matthias and Maxime feeling insufficiently explored, other relationships to these two protagonists seem either to have too much narrative weight, or not enough. Matthias almost spends more time with Kevin McAfee (Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson), an Anglophone client of his firm whose chauvinism and arrogance is probably over-played, than he does with Maxime, and apart from subtle and by no means definite hints that Kevin might also have same-sex attraction (and is over-compensating with his rudeness), and that Matthias might also be attracted to him (suggesting that his feelings for Maxime might not be a fluke), this relationship does not really go anywhere particularly interesting in the fabric of the film. Meanwhile, Dolan muse Anne Dorval, after having played the mother roles in I Killed My Mother and Mommy, briefly plays Maxime’s mother in this one as well. While previously Dolan had written remarkably insightful parts for middle-aged mothers at a very young age, this role is poorly developed, and any commentary on their relationship is ultimately unresolved, wasting Anne Dorval’s expressive talent and ability to anchor Dolan’s passionate impulses in real humanity.

Xavier Dolan’s instinct to challenge himself is likely correct: after spending most of his early twenties having amassed a small, but wildly devoted cult following thanks to relative successes I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways and Mommy, criticisms for his operatic histrionics started to surface with his critically reviled, but Cannes Grand Prix-winning It’s Only the End of the World, which saw him leave behind his troupe of talented Québécois actors for the first time to work with some of the biggest stars in French cinema (Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel, and Vincent Cassel). Here, Dolan’s choice to return to the roots of his native Québec probably seemed like a good way to recreate the magic that happened with his early features, and a safe space in which to try to deconstruct his reputation and directorial style. Matthias & Maxime did not turn out to be the film that would successfully reward his efforts to explore new means of self-expression, but perhaps if he continues to persevere (as he always has, and surely will), it won’t be too long before he hits a new creative peak in a different key.