Indie Focus

In 'Mommy,' Xavier Dolan looks things in the eye

Five films in five years, one of which won big at Cannes. The unstoppable Xavier Dolan, age 25

In a run of work to make anyone both envious and exhausted, French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan has made five features in five years. He has become the toast of the international film festival circuit, with his most recent film "Mommy" playing in the prestigious main competition at the Cannes Film Festival and sharing a prize with the living legend Jean-Luc Godard.

All this and Dolan is just 25.

On "Mommy," he wrote, directed, produced and edited the film, also receiving credit for the costumes and translating the English-language subtitles himself. Yet recently in Los Angeles, he said he doesn't know any other way to work and doesn't completely get the astonishment at his age or accomplishment.

"To me it's weird to be reflecting on this. I don't wake up in the morning thinking, 'I'm 25, rise and shine.' I don't think about it ever, but people do remind me all the time.

"I don't know that I'm being prolific, I'm just responding, I'm being authentic and I'm just listening to my needs in terms of expression," he said. "And I've been so lucky to have the means to express myself and not wait in the corner for years."

"Mommy," opening Jan. 23, feels like nothing less than Dolan's magnum opus, for the time being at least. His latest film builds upon themes of identity and redemption explored in his 2009 debut, "I Killed My Mother," in which he also starred, and 2012's "Laurence Anyways," a romantic melodrama set against a male-to-female transition.

The new film follows a single mother, Diane (Anne Dorval), as she struggles to care for her troubled, erratic teenage son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), with the looming threat of losing custody and his falling into state care. Her shy new neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), becomes an unexpected friend and ally.

Nancy Grant, a Montreal-based film producer, heard of Dolan even before he made "I Killed My Mother." The two eventually met at an awards gala for Quebecois filmmakers, where they were both up for awards — he liked her dress and they started talking. She became involved in his 2013 psychological thriller "Tom at the Farm," worked with Dolan on a music video he directed and then produced "Mommy."

"Xavier is not just a filmmaker, he's an actor, he's a performer and he has this great charisma," Grant said of Dolan's uncanny mix of quiet charm, boisterous showmanship and confident leadership. "It's both things that made him who he is and led him where he is. It's not just his films, it's everything."

Dolan began acting at age 4 and later began doing French-language dubbing of English-language films. He voiced the title role in all the "Harry Potter" films as well as films with Nicholas Hoult, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Lautner.

He still leaves time in his schedule to pick up dubbing work and, remembering a possible job, during the interview he sent a note to his agent, texting in French while simultaneously speaking in English.

One of the most striking aspects of "Mommy" is the unusual way that it's shot, working in the square aspect ratio of 1:1. Many have presumed the square ratio was intended to mimic the look of a cellphone camera.

"That's so not what it's about," Dolan said. "It's about portrait and photography, and people are, like, 'Instagram!' No, it's not about Instagram. It's one-for-one, it's the first aspect ratio that existed.

"For me, it was never a device or a trick," he said, "it was just that we felt really close to the characters. It was about looking the characters in the eye. People think I wanted to imprison the characters and it's really suffocating, but that wasn't the intention."

Consciously referencing the work of photographer Nan Goldin and working with cinematographer André Turpin, Dolan shot "Mommy" on 35-millimeter film.

"Film is life, it breathes, it sweats, it cries, it drips, it pulsates, it lives," he said. "Digital is nothing to me."

In particular since sharing the third-place Jury Prize at Cannes with Godard last year, Dolan has long been followed by comparisons to the filmmakers of the French New Wave or art-film titans Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Noting that "Mommy" does purposefully wink at "Home Alone" and that his favorite film is "Titanic," Dolan expressed exasperation with anyone trying to mold him into a classical lineage.

"I never watch a movie and think, 'Oh, he's influenced by ….' I don't care about that," he said. "I don't watch movies trying to go through a Rolodex of cinema. I'm not surprised that people do, I just don't understand the purpose. How is that interesting?

"And people are always wrong, by the way, about my influences."

Part of the achievement of Dolan's film and Dorval's performance is that the character Diane is not immediately a heroine. In their hands, a tough, tacky and brash woman doesn't become a cheap caricature but rather a sympathetic figure of perseverance and transcendence.

"The characters that have the most contrast are the most interesting, and Di is a woman with a lot of contradictions," said Dorval. "She's bright, she's a wise person, but she doesn't have a great education. She wants what's best for her son and she wants what's best for herself too. And she never feels sorry for herself.

"That was the much more interesting part of the character to me," she added. "I didn't want to do someone miserable, I wanted to play a woman who above all, in spite of any errors she makes, she still has a lot of dignity. It was very important to me, and to Xavier, to play her straight."

"Mommy" was Canada's submission for the foreign-language Academy Award but failed to make the shortlist of nine films on the way to the final five nominations. (Previously considered an early favorite in the category, on the morning of the shortlist announcement, Dolan simply tweeted "Um..") The film did recently pick up 13 nominations from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.

Though Dolan says that for now he has no plans to move from Montreal, his next film will be in English, set in New York and London with an announced cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kit Harington, Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon. Dolan describes the film, titled "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan," as "a deconstruction of the superhero … a movie on movies."

Though it may seem that Xavier Dolan has already accomplished so much, he is focused on what lies ahead.

"I could give you the usual 'I'm constantly learning,' but it's true. I am," he said. "I do feel that technically I'm still a neophyte, and that scares me. But I am a nerd, I learn fast, I'm passionate and I'm curious. I don't doubt myself, but I have my doubts."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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