Meet Xavier Dolan, cinema's hottest enfant terrible
The young Canadian director has been the buzz of film festivals and art houses. 'Tom at the Farm' could put him on the map for the masses.
French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is 26 years old and has made five features in the past five years. His latest, Tom at the Farm(in theaters and on VOD now), in which he also stars, is his most mainstream — a dark thriller in the Hitchcock mold, which even has a chase scene set in a cornfield, à la North by Northwest. But that’s a film, incidentally, he insists he’s never seen.
“I hadn’t watched any Hitchcock movies when I made Tom at the Farm, except for Vertigo when I was 8 years old,” he says. “I don’t have a sophisticated film knowledge, but I have seen the legacy of classic movies in broader entertainment. When I saw Bryan Singer’s Usual Suspects, I knew how it was going to end because I’d seen Scary Movie. Which is not the preferred order of things, but that’s how it is, because my childhood was Home Alone, Matilda, Batman Returns, Jumanji, Secret Garden, Jack, Mrs. Doubtfire, Titanic. Only family films from the ’90s.”
Dolan runs through that movie list without taking a breath, but laughs at the end, suggesting that he might be kidding. Or not. His films, especially 2014’s miraculous Mommy, about a teen with ADHD and the two women in his life (played by the two muses in Dolan’s, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement), throb with pop songs and a sort of Leo-on-the-ship’s-prow emotionalism. His 2012 epic Laurence Anyways charts the decades-long romance between a transgender schoolteacher and her girlfriend, and wears its heart on its sleeve for every minute of its nearly three-hour running time. And his personal taste shows no sign of highbrow warping. “Oh, did you see Amy Schumer on Ellen?” he asks, excitedly. “They showed her Entertainment Weekly cover. You know, the one where she’s laying on a lot of mini-bottles of alcohol. And she went, ‘The bottles are regular sized, I’m just a giant.’ I thought that was really funny.”
But his anti-film-snob posturing isn’t always convincing. Point out that his debut, 2009’s I Killed My Mother, seemed influenced by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, and he admits, “Okay, I was aping his In the Mood for Love.” His sophomore effort, the love-triangle Heartbeats, features a male object of desire clearly inspired by the iconic Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. (Which Dolan also owns up to, but he doesn’t miss an opportunity to get in a roundabout dig at Jean-Luc Godard: “People thought Heartbeats was inspired by Godard’s Contempt, but I have never seen Contempt and now that I’ve heard Godard has said [negative] things about Mommy, I will never see it.”) When Mommy won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Dolan tearfully thanked jury president Jane Campion, remarking, “Few [movies] changed my life the way your Piano did.”
The Piano wouldn’t appear to share a lot in common with the Chris Columbus comedies that shaped his childhood, but Dolan explains that Tom at the Farm (which he made before Mommy), “appealed to me because it was an opportunity to do a genre movie. I had always dreamed of doing a thriller. Silence of the Lambs was also a huge movie for me when I was a kid, one of the true quality movies that I’d seen when I was young. And I wanted to restrict myself to the rules and the choices of a genre. It’s all been done, it’s all been made. I just wanted to bring my own style to it.”
Genre is something that Dolan, in his role as a voice translator for the French dubs of blockbuster movies, has a fair deal of experience with. He dubbed Ron Weasley in all eight Harry Potter movies, plus Jacob the werewolf in the Twilight films. “I still do it a lot. I’m Dylan O’Brian in Maze Runner. I just did the second one, Scorch Trials, a week ago. It takes about 15 hours, sometimes 12 or 10. I dubbed Nat Wolff in Paper Towns, actually Nat Wolff in everything. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Josh Hutcherson, Nicholas Hoult, Eddie Redmayne, those guys, in all of their films.”
A former child actor in his native Quebec, Dolan continues to appear onscreen outside of his own movies. He plays an institutionalized man in Elephant Song, an English-language film costarring Catherine Keener, which opened in Canada in February. He says he’s never resisted the siren call of Hollywood, but despite looking at “many, many, many, many, many scripts,” he hasn’t yet appeared in an American movie. “Sometimes I didn’t like the material or I auditioned and wasn’t offered the part. But also sometimes I read a script and think, ‘I wouldn’t want to commit to playing this part for three months, but f— it, I’ll be dubbing him in a year.”
Dolan’s candor and effusiveness has annoyed some in the film industry. Often the ribbing is playful: At this year’s Cannes, Dolan served on the jury and gushed, “I feel like a better person” for doing so, to which fellow juror Jake Gyllenhaal deadpanned, “You’re not, Xavier.” But occasionally it’s poison-penned: After a scathing Hollywood Reporter review of Tom at the Farm accused Dolan of adoring his own close-ups, he tweeted at the publication: “you can kiss my narcissistic ass.” He doesn’t regret it. “There are as many close-ups of everybody else in the film as there are of me,” he says. “That was a review of my personality, not of my work.”
His work, indeed, has smart actors — particularly actresses — everywhere lining up to collaborate with him. Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux star in his next movie, a recently-wrapped drama called It’s Only the End of the World; Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington are in the one after that, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a commentary on gossip, fame and Hollywood, which will be Dolan’s first film in English.
And he gets most excited, almost contagiously, when talking about the power of performance. Just mention a name — be it Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams or Rooney Mara — and he’ll bounce in his chair, gesturing with his arms how their performances have moved him. “Actors have a one-foot square in which their face can play,” he says. “And, by God, the great ones use every f—ing inch of it.” He might have learned that from watching Macaulay Culkin slap his cheeks in the mirror, but it’s the truth nonetheless.
At 26, Xavier Dolan has already written and directed five acclaimed features that have played at Toronto and Cannes, where the French Canadian rubbed shoulders with Jake Gyllenhaal and the Coen brothers on the Cannes jury. Jessica Chastain has called him her spirit animal. And yet – spirit animal or not – Dolan still can’t seem to catch a break in America.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious, but it’s puzzling,” Dolan says to the Guardian from the New York offices of Amplify Releasing, the independent distributor that’s opening his fourth film – Tom at the Farm – in the US, two years after it debuted at the Venice film festival.
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During the interim, Dolan’s fifth and most successful film, Mommy, tied with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language for the Cannes 2014 Jury prize.
This marks the second time Dolan has struggled to release his work in the US: his universally acclaimed debut, I Killed My Mother, premiered at Cannes, but took three years to find its way to American audiences.
“No one knows me in the States, because the movies have been released in such an awkward, irregular fashion, all by different distributors. There is no continuity,” he says.
Dolan says a “cluttered up” independent film landscape is to blame – one that has “very little room for foreign entries”. “It’s a complicated landscape to occupy,” he adds. “And North America does not read subtitles.”
Tom at the Farm, like everything he’s released, is in French, but it’s his first no-holds-barred thriller. Sporting unruly blond hair, Dolan plays Tom, a young Quebecois man who travels to a remote country farm for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. Tom doesn’t divulge his identity after learning that Guillaume was in the closet his entire life, only to soon enter into a twisted, sexually charged game with his former lover’s macho brother.
Dolan is proud of the film, but worries that for many Americans, Tom at the Farm will serve as an introduction to his work. “It hurts me to think that this film will be breaking the ice [for many],” he says. “I wish my previous movies had performed well at the [US] box office, but that’s not the case.”
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Mommy, his immediate follow-up, was expected to, following a spectacular Cannes reception (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “outrageous and brilliant”) and success in Europe. However, it failed to cross over with US audiences, earning the bulk of its (admittedly impressive) $3.5m earnings in Canada. Dolan says he’s proud of Mommy’s homegrown success, but that he still longs to connect with an audience south of the border.
“Film-making is not liberating,” he explains. “It drains a lot out of you and it’s fulfilling only temporarily. It’s a very thankless thing at times. When you’re spending all that time on a film, you don’t want 40,000 people to see it – it’s just not enough. You dream of more.”
Dolan is done taking chances. For his upcoming two projects, he’s going big.
Following Cannes jury duty in May, Dolan wrapped principal photography on It’s Only the End of the World, his first film to feature a heavyweight cast (Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel).
After completing that project, he’s next slated to shoot The Death and Life of John F Donovan, his first English-language effort. Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington have already signed on: the Game of Thrones actor will play a Hollywood star whose innocent pen pal relationship with 11-year-old boy in London becomes tabloid fodder.
Dolan admits to feeling pressure for the two high-profile projects to do well commercially, once they eventually open. But he’s excited to embark on this next stage in his career.
“The stakes feel more important,” he says. “I’m not scared - I will not fail.”