Film directors are well-known for sloughing off bad reviews, or saying they don't read critics entirely.
Such an attitude, had he held it, might have helped the emotional health of Xavier Dolan.
But it also would have made the 27-year-old French-Canadian director of "Mommy" and the divisive new Cannes drama "It's Only the End of the World"--about a young playwright and his fractious family — less interesting, less dramatic and, perhaps, less human.
"I don't know if I want to go on being a director after this," Dolan said, a few minutes into a beach-side interview with the Los Angeles Times on Friday afternoon.
Could things really be that bad? He had won a top prize here for "Mommy" just two years ago and was a jury member last year.
Dolan pulled up a "World" review on his phone and passed it to a reporter.
"It's simply impossible to believe that a story this stridently self-pitying could not refer, more or less explicitly, to writer/director Dolan himself," read the review from the online publication the Playlist. "It suggests a level of martyred self-involvement on Dolan's part that is tantamount to a persecution complex."
Dolan took the phone back with an angry look.
"Who the ... does this person thinks she is?" the director said. "How does a person think they know what my personal life is? This is not journalism. It's gossip. It's pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it's cheap psychology."
Then, sounding more ruminative, he briefly cast his eyes downward.
"It's hard to shut them out when they're about you personally and not your work."
Dolan's French-language film — based on Jean-Luc Lagarce's play and with a dream cast that includes Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel — centers on a successful young writer who returns home after a 12-year self-imposed exile. There are high hopes all around for joy and reconciliation.
But the family — mother, brother, sister, sister-in-law — quickly splinters into bitterness and infighting, an oppressiveness Dolan highlights with quick cuts between extreme close-ups. The movie strips away all the distancing layers and glossy devices of most on-screen family dysfunction; in fact, it takes an inherently painful set of interactions and effectively locks you inside them. The film is far from easy to watch. Then again, that's the point.
The reviews were not kind, as words such as "shrill" and "insufferable" were used. "It's not an accident you're the only American [journalist] who wants to talk to me this week," he said dolefully. (The director, known as a prodigious talent and an enfant terrible since his breakthrough as an actor-filmmaker at 19, has been a favorite subject of this reporter, including during this lively interview for "Mommy" two years ago and this more explanatory conversation about the Adele "Hello" video, which he directed.)
Indeed, U.S. journalists were harsh toward "End of the World." Many Europeans weren't much kinder, though the movie had its champions on this side of the pond, notably the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who in a four-star review called "World" "a brilliant, stylised and hallucinatory evocation of family dysfunction." But the overall tone was sharp-tongued, a commentariat drawing out its knives for this film as readily as it opened up its arms in embrace of "Mommy."
So for nearly a half hour, Dolan fought a battle, if as much with himself as with the critics.
"What's that word in English for how wolves move? Packs? It's something where a very influential wolf says something and everyone follows. It's this mass movement. It becomes a spiral of hatred."
A moment later, though, he said. "Let's start over. Me whining is not interesting."
Then, as if rethinking that position, he added, "I know people think I like to indulge the ego-monster reputation I have. So why not, let's do it," then went into "I know people get bad reviews. But this is patronizing. They sit back with their arms folded" — he mimed the action — and judge me like they're judging a child doing his homework. They look at me like I'm some invention of the festival." (Dolan has debuted many of his half-dozen films at Cannes.)
"I don't know that these reviews are written by humans," he said. "But they're certainly being read by humans."
During a few moments he did let loose at a critical establishment he saw as complicit with Big Hollywood ("This is someone who eats doughnuts at their desk and gives 4 1/2 stars to 'Fast and the Furious' and is bitter they're not a filmmaker," indulging in some of the profession's baser stereotypes.) But he also made clear he seemed genuinely hurt.
In fact, the director became so disconsolate that at several points in the interview this reporter had to reach over and pat him on the shoulder and tell him it would be OK, and that he should, in fact, keep directing. "It's too late anyway — I'm already in prep [on my new movie]," suggesting this might otherwise be an option. (The film he's prepping is his English-language debut, the star-studded "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan," which is set to begin shooting this summer.)
Then he said, "I don't know that I want to do this for the rest of my life. I can't put myself through this."
Asked if all this was mitigated by the rapturous reception to "Mommy," he shook his head. "That movie I thought was good. But there we things I didn't love about it," enumerating ways he could have told the story differently. "This I thought was my best film."
As he spoke, he offered a kind of microcosm of his polarizing persona — those who accuse him of narcissism (or a persecution complex) were unlikely to be dissuaded by this exchange, while admirers were likely to again see in Dolan a blast of honest air, someone willing to be candid in a film-promotion world of increased glibness, where no one ever seems to have a doubt about a creative choice or a normal human reaction to a criticism.
He began to talk about the themes of the film, then segued, almost unconsciously, back to what was gnawing at him.
"This is a movie about people saying everything that's useless and stupid and missing out on what's essential, Oddly enough I feel that this reaction in Cannes has been paralleling the play's fundamental message, which is people's incapacity to love and listen."
Cannes is a place of heightened emotions--a function of the beautiful scenery, maddening crowds, glittery surfaces and frustrating bureaucracy, intensified by the fact that several times a day people are asked to exit all that and sit in a dark room to be taken somewhere else. Being at the center of a limelight, let alone a negative one, is not easy. More than a few times even civilians (this one included) have had a reaction at the festival to which they've later looked back and said, "Why did I care about that so much again?"
Dolan continued with what was bothering him at the moment. "Every movie gets booed now. And then everyone Tweets about it as if that's the verdict on a film." Underscoring an idea that others have raised regarding the hothouse, Twitterized atmosphere of film festivals — and a point one suspects even Cannes leadership has some unease about — added, "It's odd and bizarre and unseemly. What are we, in summer camp?"
As the interview ended, he said, shaking his head, "I'm going to get slammed for this." He was assured, once again, that it would be OK.