Director of Photography:
Running time: 96 minutes
Original title: J’ai tué ma mère
If Antoine Doinel was bipolar and gay, perhaps his story would have looked a little like that of Hubert Minel.
His French counterpart — and particularly his actions in Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) — is indirectly referenced at many turns in the film, the interview with a psychologist in Truffaut’s film here becoming a self-shot black-and-white confessional that is repeated throughout.
Hubert is in his late teens and lives with his mother, whom he obviously despises. Over time, we get the impression this is not just everyday conflict between a teenager and his parent(s), but Hubert has other issues, some related to him not having told his mother he is gay, others perhaps having more to do with his mental health.
This début film of Dolan, who plays Hubert and was only 19 years old when he directed this self-written screenplay in the autumn of 2008, is as artistic as it is intense. The mother-son couple spend much of their time either engaged in passive-aggressive interaction or screaming at each other (sometimes Dolan starts speaking and doesn’t stop, while the camera stays on him for an extended period of time), but while the mother, played by television actress Anne Dorval, often tries to shrug her shoulders at her child’s behaviour, the petulant Hubert goes from one extreme to the other in hopes of manipulating his mother into letting him do his own thing.
That approach is not bearing much fruit, and one day at school when he receives an assignment to question his mother about the family’s financial situation, he tells the teacher his mother has died. This is a line taken directly from Truffaut’s directorial début, The 400 Blows, which was also about a single child, although Truffaut’s Antoine had a much friendlier school environment.
Dolan’s use of his camera is striking, although there are moments when it crosses the threshold of pretension, as in his character’s supposedly self-shot confessional tapes — which nonetheless are not entirely static, proving someone else was behind the lens — which have his face cut off at the nose, showing us only his bottom half of his face, sometimes for an extended period of time.
What is truly amazing to watch is the one scene of intimacy, which takes place one day when Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin go to paint Antonin’s mother’s office by dripping paint on the walls à la Jackson Pollock. Noir désir’s “Vive la Fête” pulses on the soundtrack while the scene itself is constructed in many parts that include close-ups of paint added in many colours onto the wall, dripping, running from top to bottom in various patterns, shots of Hubert and Antonin eagerly throwing paint on the wall, a beautiful close-up of the colourful cans of paint, shot vertically from above, and ultimately the action of the two boys making out and having sex, their arms stained in different colours, sometimes accelerated, sometimes slowed down.
The jump cuts of the paint dripping down the walls are reminiscent of Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso), in which the master’s artwork grows in front of our eyes from one separate artwork to the next. But Dolan, not interested in the final product, has his eye on the beautiful, artistic mobility of the paint in motion.
The transition between scenes is where the pretension sometimes sneaks in to fragment the film into more pieces than necessary, given the division established early on between scenes taking place in black-and-white and colour, respectively. Shots without any motion, a kind of photographic still life, are inserted instead of a cut or a dissolve in order to add rhythm where none is actually needed, even though the exercise of create motion with static images is admittedly fundamental to the cinematic art form.
Dolan’s sense for visual creativity, thinking outside the box, is breathtaking, from adding text onscreen instead of cutting to a close-up or a voice-over, to using a deliberate continuity error (faux raccord) when he puts a cigarette in his mouth in his bedroom before we cut to his face and he is in black-and-white — confessing in the bathroom that the doesn’t love his mother the way a son should love his mother.
He also makes the world his own, not unlike Tarantino, by actually changing the opening quotation from the original. Even before the opening credits, we see a quotation from Guy de Maupassant, from his novel Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death), from which he excises Maupassant’s contention that love for one’s mother is as natural as it is to live, and he changes “on ne s’aperçoit de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière” to “on ne prend conscience de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière.” The change is subtle and doesn’t change the meaning to any degree, but it is interesting nonetheless and suggests that Dolan, while respecting the conventions (many other authors, from de Musset to Choderlos de Laclos, are cited throughout the film by means of their works), also allows himself to make them his own.
But while the relationship at first seems toxic, unsalvageable, we slowly recognise that Dolan focuses on some particularly hurtful moments for the mother, and treats them with the respect they deserve. What is equally interesting is the framing of the two individuals: Whether in the car or at the dinner table, they are very often framed in a two-shot, sitting next to each other instead of opposite each other. While this pretends they are on the same level, equally vulnerable to our gaze, it also shows they are not making eye contact and therefore communication is obstructed.
Hubert’s confessions about his feelings and his mother’s true feelings about her situation, whether silently whispered to herself or in a moment of unleashing pent-up anger of years over the phone, we get a good sense for both of these characters and learn to accept the difficulty they face getting to know and accept each other. In this way, Dolan shows an acute sense for showing us the many sides of his characters and giving human drama a human face, and makes his entry onto the world stage with elegance and insight.