In Xavier Dolan’s ferocious debut (Canada’s submission for the Foreign Film Oscar and a 2009 Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes), the intensity of the love/hate relationship between mother and child is dialed up to 11 in this brutal, funny and at times horrific examination of a bond that has rarely been this explicit on film.Hubert (Dolan, who also wrote the screenplay and produced) is a petulant and abusive son to his single mother Chantale (brilliantly played by Anne Dorval). The simple act of eating breakfast is cause for him referring to her as a pig. Not to be outdone she matches him with truly passive aggressive behavior that she knows will aggravate him. Their relationship is practically dependent on this push/pull and at times becomes positively Oedipal in nature. At times it’s as if we are watching a husband and wife in the throes of domestic insanity worthy of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. When Hubert makes a few small efforts to get along with his mother (he makes breakfast, he does the laundry), it’s not met with overflowing gratitude as he expects. It goes unrecognized by his mother, as he is not doing anything extraordinary but merely what she’s been asking him to do all along. This further divides the two, creating an epic chasm.
A wonderful element of the film is that Hubert is gay and in a relationship. This is never a focal point of the story but another crack in the relationship when Chantale finds out this information through the boyfriend’s much cooler, hip mother at a sun-tanning salon. Chantale isn’t upset that her son is gay, she’s stunned that he hasn’t told her.
Due to Hubert’s actions at home and at school (he tells his teacher his mother is dead so that he doesn’t have to write a paper on her, hence the title), Chantale enrolls him into a private school, Our Lady of Sorrows. How apropos.
When they separate, Hubert, with all of the overwrought angst of a selfish teenager screams, “What would you do if I died tomorrow?!” to his mother. She stands there silent and motionless and when he leaves she says, “I’d die tomorrow.” Stunning, both in its honesty and its delivery.
After a night of tripping on ecstasy, Hubert stumbles back home in the middle of the night to profess his undying love for his mother. It’s met by fear and condemnation by her (“Are you on drugs?”) and he is crushed and shuns her. But, in an example of a mother’s undying love for her son, when the principal of the boarding school calls to admonish her parenting skills as a single mother, she unleashes a torrent of pent up rage that is both a fierce defense of her son and a staunch reprimand of the male hierarchy and double standard for women. It’s an epic moment for Chantale and Dorval is stunning and Oscar-worthy in this scene.
At a mere 19 when he made this, Dolan can certainly be guilty of stuffing his film with homages and inspiration, from 1950s French New Wave to the independent films of John Cassavetes in the early 1970s. The décor of their houses also echoes the 70s in its tacky, middlebrow hues of orange, yellow and brown. He frames shots of Hubert and Chantale talking not together but in separate frames, with each character at the far end as if the camera is trying to escape their verbal battles. Other times he breaks from his cinema verite style to venture into slow motion fantasy or video camera confessional (in crisp black and white). Another source of inspiration is clearly Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, as is seen in Kodachrome flashbacks of Hubert’s childhood home with his mother. Having seen Dolan’s second film, Heartbeats, at Cannes this year I can definitely say this crutch hasn’t lessened, it’s increased. For now that’s ok, he’s doing more at his age than most directors could wish to do in a career and Dolan is clearly a talent with a fantastic aesthetic and point of view.