TORONTO — Phenom director Xavier Dolan was a smash at Cannes, conquered the Quebec box office and is now poised to take Toronto as his breakout film, I Killed My Mother, finally lands in English Canada after nearly a year of hype.
Acclaim has followed the young Quebec filmmaker since his mother-son drama debuted last spring at the Cannes Film Festival, where it nabbed three prizes and kicked off a celebrated run on the festival circuit.
When it arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, it was met by a round of applause at a private screening for press and industry — a staid group that typically withholds such unabashed enthusiasm.
Buoyed by the encouraging response, the 20-year-old Dolan said that all the acclaim was nonetheless nerve-racking and worried that media focus on his age would detract from the film itself.
“Yes, I’m young but I hate to be catalogued into youth — it’s a movie . . . and it’s an entity itself,” Dolan said in between meetings that kept him on the go throughout TIFF.
“I tried to do a work of art, no matter what. The age may be the reason people go see it, it may be a source of curiosity, but I hope that in the end people appreciate the movie not because it has been filmed by someone who is 20.”
Dolan not only wrote and directed I Killed My Mother (known in Quebec as J’ai tue ma mere) but stars in the film as Hubert Minel, a gay 16-year-old with a desperate yearning to break away from single mom, Chantale.
Much of the film’s spark comes from the explosive verbal exchanges that volley between the turbulent pair. From the opening scenes it’s clear that the slightest perceived misstep by Chantale (played by Anne Dorval) — the way she talks, the way she eats — can set off a tirade of fury from her petulant son. Their constant bickering ranges from the comically trivial to the agonizingly hurtful, with an anguished Hubert at one point claiming his mother died to get out of a school assignment that would have involved her.
Dolan said much of the dialogue was improvised but drawn from actual conversations with his own mother. In the midst of those real-life heated arguments, Dolan says he nevertheless recognized how petty they were, and he hoped to show that in the film.
“I knew I was hurting my mother and I was spontaneously guilt-tripping and I was already feeling guilty about it,” Dolan said of their debates.
“I was immature and it showed . . . (and) I did know where we were going. I love to observe humans, I love to watch them very closely in all their neurotic reactions and habits and everything, and I’ve always loved doing this. I thought I had a third eye in the back of my head, just seeing things with another filter, another brain, analyzing while I was fighting.”
That ability to see from multiple perspectives carried over when it came time to put his story on the big screen. Although Dolan admits to struggling at times with his role as director, he had no qualms about wearing multiple hats for his first feature.
“People impose their point of view and their ideas on you and if you don’t know how to deal with all those inputs you probably go crazy,” said Dolan, whose accolades include three prizes from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, a $5,000 prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Prix Lumieres prize for best French-language film outside France.
“I know what I want and I don’t want to lose control. It’s important to me that it’s my work, my work of art and I don’t want people to tell me how to do it, because it’s my vision and it’s my life . . . . I want to hear people’s feedback but, in the end, I want to keep control on what I do.”