Xavier Dolan and Revolutionizing Sexuality on the Big Screen
A Feminist Critical Analysis of Xavier Dolan’s Cinema
By: Jaylan Salah
The year is 2014.
Being a film critic you are granted many privileges that most people can’t have access to, including early screenings for films that haven’t been in cinemas yet or ones that won’t find a market in your home country.
One of the films I had the pleasure of watching was Mommy, the crazy creation by Canadian director and actor Xavier Dolan, who was 25 years old by the time he made it. Nobody had the privilege of watching any of Dolan’s five features that he has made so far in Egypt, save for “Mommy” which people watched late in 2015.
Not only is he incredibly young for such depth in analyzing human emotions and depicting them onscreen, but he has also shared the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival with — wait for it — the great Jean-Luc Godard!
That being said, the guy has balls. And talent!
Ever since Mommy I’ve been tracking down Xavier Dolan and every film that he directed. Today after watching J’ai tué ma Mère (I Killed my Mother) — his first feature and the last Dolan film on my plate — I can safely say I have formed a critical idea on his world as a director and an artist. As a cinephile and a feminist, my reasons for reveling in the Dolan experience would be as follows.
- Cinematic image:
If there’s anything that could be said about Dolan’s image, it’s that it is purely expressive of the characters in relation to the audience. Dolan knows when to alienate the characters from the audience, when to transmit their discomfort to the audience and when to put the audience in their shoes, shooting scenes with the audience riding along in the character’s head à la Being John Malkovich, so that you see the entire scene from that character’s POV. Recall, those who may, Fred’s entrance to the party in Laurence Anyways or how Hubert saw his mother and her friend as trampy, Jersey Shore caricatures in I Killed my Mother. Dolan also excels in shooting the characters from behind, thus making it difficult for the viewer to decipher their motives entirely. Some intense, extreme close-ups would either lure us into the character’s world or simply awaken our senses.
In Mommy, the scene where Steve dances to the Céline Dion song “On Ne Change Pas” is simply one of the most seductive scenes in recent cinema. The fact that it’s a guy makes it more aphrodisiac and liberating than if it was a woman. Dolan knows how to play on the male image and bring down the taboo that we’ve had with male sexuality and sexualization of males as opposed to normalizing female sexualization on screen.
In Dolan’s first feature I Killed my Mother, an overflow of colors and an undeniable homoerotic tension is evident in the scene where Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin paint a room. Dolan does not spare an excess of paint and a steamy sex scene. The use of colors is perfect, where the boys’ hormonally-driven makeover is amplified by the apt montage.
In Heartbeats, each and every sex scene uses different grades of the color palette. The stereotype is pretty evident, opting for “boys” in cool colors and “girls” in hot colors. What I see is that it is more of a personality trait than an actual gender myth. Marie is the more hotheaded, turbulent of the two friends while Francis — though nervous — is on the subtle, docile side. Even in their separate pursuits of Nicolas, Marie’s energy is vibrantly separate from Francis’s shyness. In my opinion, this is a very clever twist on the gender characterization on screen.
Think about it: a love triangle, two guys and a girl. In a clichéd world, the girl would either be the sultry, playful prima donna (Nicolas), or the shy, romantic low-key character (Francis), while the guy would be the nervous, constantly on-edge character, domineering and refusing to show weakness (Marie). Dolan uses this stereotype but with a twist. The guy is — in fact — in the middle; probably a clueless temptress uses the two friends’ rivalry over him as an advantage.
- De-structuring the Power System:
Feminist critics have been voicing their anger and concern at exploiting women sexually on screen and whether some sexualized scenes were necessary or simply embedded there for pure testosterone-fueled pleasure. We are used to seeing females being beaten down and abandoned. However, in Dolan’s films, it could be easily seen how he exploits the males of his films; whether it was through sexual harassment, sexual violence or mere acts of emotional trauma.
In one of his very brilliant, less recognized films, Tom at the Farm, the vulnerability by which Dolan portrays (and directs) Tom — playing the role himself — is both refreshing and intense to watch. In a scene where his dead lover’s brother attacks him in his sleep, simply clamping his hand over his mouth and threatening him to deliver a thoughtful speech at the funeral, the scene could be easily a throwback to the damsel-in-distress trope of the B&W film serials of the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and all the way to the ’60s. The tough macho hero (the bad guy), hand-gags the heroine for no other reason than fulfilling the latent male fantasy of kink and bondage. It’s more or less a replica, or a mockery of, the insane idea that women look better gagged, so as to derive pleasure from their helplessness. With Tom in this position — hand-gagged, vulnerable and helpless — with a tough, macho (although we see through his cracks later on), dominant man above him, the pyramid becomes inverted. Tom’s helplessness is no stranger to our mindsets, almost warped by the trite image of the female in distress. In this scene, Dolan played the hand-over-mouth (HOM) theme in popular culture with a twist. Similarly, he challenged it in the Mommy poster, where the son hand-gags the mother. Not his girlfriend or object of interest, but his own mother, which leaves plenty of Oedipal subtext.
In Tom at the Farm, when Tom and Francis tango, it’s apparent how the sensual dance could be used to make a male the eye-candy of the viewer without the sexist misuse of a certain sex to derive pleasure for the viewer.
Dolan has greatly succeeded in making men objects of affection simply because they are humans, not because they are macho or masculine. In I Killed my Mother, the power struggle is pretty evident in the sex scene between Antonin and Hubert. Despite Antonin being on top, it’s clear that he is not the one controlling the relationship. This has been seen thoroughly with hetero relationships on cinema, yet rarely through the lens of a relationship between two guys.
- Gender and Sexual Fluidity:
What makes Dolan’s films universal is their treatment of gender and sexuality. His films are packed with characters who struggle with their sexuality and their sexual identity all the time. The way he handles the subject matter is humane, too. He doesn’t just use these people to glorify their sexual struggles but rather to use them as backgrounds for their ordinary, everyday lives.
When Laurence in Laurence, Anyways suffers a transphobic attack, we are not taken through a larger-than-life dissection of what happened. But rather we see the aftermath on Laurence’s features. Same goes for I Killed my Mother: Hubert is bullied for being gay but rather than dwelling on the moment, Dolan simply puts it out there and then moves on. It’s not undermining, but rather displaying it as an aspect of the character’s journey, of which a greater theme – the transition in Laurence and the teen angst in I Killed my Mother — is the main plot.
In Tom at the Farm, sexual tension reaches its limit, with Francis and Tom playing a scary game of pain and sexuality. We never get to discover Francis’ sexual identity, and whether his attraction to Tom was simply due to his desire to exert power — that he probably lost from being forgotten in this secluded farm — or his substantial lust over a beautiful man. And why Tom surrendered was another mystery. Was it a way of punishing himself for the past relationship with Guillaume that wasn’t entirely honest? Or was the farm a catharsis of sorts, a purgatory for sins he didn’t commit, a past he had to deny?
- Redefining the Ordinary:
When I first heard the hype about I Killed my Mother, I expected it to be grand and scary: a film about an abusive mother or a homophobic mother. But then, it turns out to be a regular film about a very common mother-son relationship. His movie is about teen angst and the anger that we all experience during that sensitive stage of our lives. It’s about young people hating their parents for no other reason than immaturity and plain dissatisfaction with their own lives. Unlike most commercial American films about teenagers — or even films that depict a wild teenage soul as a side story — Dolan doesn’t give us resolution. He doesn’t use us for his own good, for us to be on the boy’s side or on Mommy’s side.
If a young boy with roiling hormones and a muddled sense of coming to terms with his body and sexual growth had seen this film, he would definitely be on the boy’s side. If a young girl in the same position had seen this film, she would also be on the boy’s side. If I had seen this film ten years ago I would totally be on Hubert’s side.
However, if a parent sees this film, they will most surely be on the mother’s side. Dolan said as much himself, in an interview with Wendy Mesley from “The National” that you can watch in full online at youtube.com/watch?v=H_-ljQv4Oko. Others might try and calmly analyze the situation. Whose fault is it if not the mother’s? Maybe it’s the absent father’s fault. Maybe it’s simply that some parents and children are incompatible no matter how hard they both tried. Whenever Dolan shifts the focus on the mother, he shows her loneliness. She’s playing solitaire. She’s watching lame soap operas on TV and she is even interacting with the characters as if she knew them very well. This film is a shout to parenting, a theme that is constantly and annoyingly glorified on TV and film. Here it is given a very unglamorous scrubbing. It could be simply the truth about an ancient part of nature, or a harsh criticism of a process that’s all too often handled in a haphazard fashion, consequences ill-considered.
What I love about Dolan is how he captures humanity in all its whimsical absurdity: The unexplained acts of kindness or love or cruelty, the insane sexual attraction and corresponding drama. There had been directors doing it from day one. An example that I totally love: Wong Kar-Wai. This Hong Kong director knows how to capture the true moment of loneliness, how to manifest it into an entity, a total separate element of the entire film. Another pertinent example is Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of Senses, a film that takes lust as an element and gets it out there. Lust, sexual tension, drowning in sexual bliss, sexuality… pick your disease(s). It’s like the 7 Hats of the Same Character, and that character is not Kichizo Ishida or Sada Abe; it’s the energy that builds in between them, the fire, the crackling desire of lust and sexual experimentation. It’s being lost in each other, in time and your own physicality.
Dolan knows how to create an element, making it as tangible and as real as every other character. Transgenderism, parenthood, lust, adolescence, mental illness; these are all elements in the Dolan kingdom of senses. He uses them to his own benefit and to the merit of the characters.
- Creating a Homosexual Icon:
It’s pretty well-known that Brokeback Mountain is the love story or Casablanca of the 2000s. It’s also well-known that Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin is your dark, diversified brother of Now and Then or Stand By Me.
But as opposed to having this lesbian iconic character whom all girls — regardless their sexual orientation — drool over like Ruby Rose in Orange is the New Black, or Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color, or Cher in Silkwood, we never had that godly homosexual beauty. I consider Xavier Dolan the Leonardo DiCaprio of recent times, even thought he hasn’t starred in any schmaltzy romances.
Lesbianism is sometimes portrayed in terms of fulfilling every guy’s dream of having two hot, naked women kissing. Hasn’t anybody thought of a woman’s dream of having two hot, naked men kissing onscreen?
Dolan’s characters — Tom, Francis and Hubert — are all homosexual. They unconsciously play on a female fantasy of two hot men getting it on in a way that is human and raw, and sometimes very subtle; but the homoerotic tension is pretty evident, even when there’s no actual sex onscreen.
I’ve seen my share of gay drama and movies. I’ve seen all episodes of Queer as Folk — which, by the way, had its share of hot man-on-man action. But nothing compares to how Dolan allows his male characters to “make love to the camera”.
- Artistic Narcissism:
Somehow many critics have blurred the line between Xavier Dolan as a person who appears in interviews, calls Orson Welles “lazy” and dishes about Titanic, as opposed to the maker of complex, artistic films and a director who has the right to be self-centered and narcissistic when placing himself in the spotlight as an actor/director.
Art is a very selfish realm. It’s a solitary state of the mind; yet as soon as we’ve had our vision, it vies for attention with others . It has to find an audience. “Write for yourself” — that’s what they always say in writing schools. “Never write for an audience”. They are right, to an extent. However, as soon as the first draft is done, you are dreaming of who will be reading it next. After you’re done with your close-knit support system who would cheer you on everything you do, you are ready to face the world with whatever has emerged from your system.
There is also the common belief that the less personal, the more qualified the art. Lena Dunham, Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut, Sylvia Plath, Nadine Labaki are all artists who have easily infused themselves into the artistic material. If you look closely at any work of “good” art, you can easily spot a part of the creator in it. Most of the examples mentioned were male artists. Women are always advised against going autobiographical. That way they will be deemed less credible and taken less seriously. Same goes for young people. I believe Xavier Dolan would be the youngest person to make a (semi)autobiographical movie, thus the backlash came pretty severe. It goes along the line of, “What does this kid have to say about his life? He should have waited until he’s older!”
It’s true that Dolan kept getting better and better at his craft, until he reached a well-earned maturity, artistic and directorial, by his fifth feature, Mommy. But still, the grittiness and stylistically experimental tone of his earlier films were very well-played. A good example could be seen where real life moments alternate with a few moments of baroque fantasy (an extravagance playing on a character’s wildest subconscious images of another). In Heartbeats, Francis imagines Nicolas — the object of his affection — with marshmallows raining down upon his naked body.
Summing things up, Xavier Dolan is a force of nature: His films breathe fire, anger and all kinds of unsettling emotions that lie deep inside of him and would later be translated to us. His gayness is not something that he uses for acquiring sympathy or raising awareness, yet he does a superb job of humanizing the idea of gender and sexuality, showing how complex human-human relationships can be, regardless what flavor they come in.