Cannes Film Festival shines light on maverick director Xavier Dolan

Canadian director Xavier Dolan shared the Jury Prize award for his boisterous family drama 'Mommy."
(Julien Warnand / EPA)

Spend a few minutes talking to Xavier Dolan and the 25-year-old will quickly demonstrate why he merits the enfant terrible tag that’s been slapped on him.

As the Cannes Film Festival wound down Saturday, a few hours before the competition prizes were to be handed out, the Canadian director of the well-received mother-child story “Mommy” had some thoughts about his state of mind. “I’m so nervous,” he said. “People say they’re not thinking about [prizes]. It’s ...,” finishing the sentence with an unprintable word for hogwash.

“Anyone who will tell you it doesn’t matter, it’s like, please,” he paused and laughed slightly, as he tossed off another unprintable word. “... please.”

The Quebec native had reason to think his name might be called. After three features that drew praise at Cannes in years past (and a fourth work at the Venice Film Festival last year), Dolan’s fifth effort — a boisterous French-language dysfunctional-family dramedy set in the Montreal neighborhoods of his childhood — has earned him his strongest plaudits yet.

Dolan has crafted a tale of a volatile yet oddly charismatic teenager, the ADHD-afflicted Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who after being discharged from a reformatory institution because even the people there couldn’t handle him, returns to live with his widowed mother Diane. Played by a standout Anne Dorval, Diane is a voluble and garishly dressed woman who comes in the cinematic mold of that tough-minded, free-spirited single mother (think Cher in “Mask”) yet also seems carefully rooted in this movie.


“Mommy” trades in comedy and heart, the movie’s warmth and emotional violence often coming all at once, as Diane and Steve play out their enjoyably crass dynamic. “Don’t we all have a little Steve in ‎ourselves?” Dolan said, speaking perhaps as much for himself. “I mean, really.”

Though many general moviegoers will likely not have heard of Dolan or his French-language films, he is a well-known quantity on the international film-festival circuit. With carefully coiffed hair and sharp outfits — and even sharper public pronouncements — Dolan has become a familiar image on the Croisette in recent years, the rare director whose persona may be as well known as his work.

Dolan was moved to tell his latest story after stopping in a small Western U.S. town off Route 66 during production of a previous film, where on a motel TV he caught a documentary about a juvenile detention center.

‎”They would just be sitting there and all of a sudden they start fighting and calling each other ... and then saying you ... and you ...” he said, mimicking their string of expletives in his fluent if somewhat French-accented English. “And you look at the person saying these things and he’s 7.”

‎Instead of delving into the specifics of the juvie world — “I didn’t want to wallow in anything concrete,” he said — Dolan took his impressions and crafted the story, often deploying bombast between and among the characters.

But if “Mommy” is‎ a hand grenade at the kind of sober family drama one normally finds at a festival, Dolan’s movie also has a subtle tenderness.


Diane and Steve not only find ways of (intermittently) connecting with each other but‎ also develop an unexpected relationship with neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément). A pretty schoolteacher with a debilitating stutter‎, she is more complicated than her placid demeanor suggests. Just as with the movie’s core parental relationship, Dolan never sentimentalizes Kyla, nor Diane and Steve’s attitude toward her.

“These are not characters who are wallowing in self-pity or are losers; I hate films that are about losers,” Dolan said. He added that he also wanted to make a movie about “a strong female lead character who isn’t beaten up or a whore, which is what most female lead characters are.”

A former child actor and occasional performer in his own films, Dolan has garnered a reputation for closely managing small elements in movies, the kind even more experienced directors might delegate. When a reporter asked Dorval about her costumes in “Mommy,”‎ Dolan noted that she chose her own. “Yes, from the few you laid out for me,” she volleyed back.

In festival screening rooms and hotels, “Mommy” has been regarded as a leap forward for a director who often displayed the energy but not the maturity in earlier pieces such as “Laurence Anyways” and “I Killed My Mother,” particularly notable given his age.

Dolan shooed away the idea that he should be graded on a curve. “Story has no age,” he said several times in the interview, adding once, “I’m not creating with my age, and it’s not something that should be taken into account when judging a movie.”

But even he might admit‎ the film contains some generational influences. “Mommy” has an unexpected soundtrack, filled with ‘90s ballads from the likes of Dido and the Counting Crows, and Dolan said he was inspired to make movies in the first place by works such as “Titanic” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”


“These mainstream movies imprinted on my mind before I ever became a director,” he said, going on to cite what he says was an emotionally resonant edit from “Titanic.”‎ “I mean, from Rose to the water,” he said, finishing his description of the scene. “Boom, that’s filmmaking.”

People will call him names because of his tastes, he said. And “I say, ‘You’re stupid for not liking ‘Titanic.’ These people‎ are stupid because they can’t see ‘Thor’ and enjoy it. They’ll say they see [Jean-Luc] Godard. I don’t see Godard because I don’t like him.”

After an amazingly prolific early career, Dolan is taking a step back — “a little showbiz break,” he called it — as he prepares to return to university in the fall. When he comes back to filmmaking, he said, he has an English-language script ready and may make it his next film, which would be his first that’s not in French.

For now, though, he can revel in some recent success. On Saturday night, “Mommy” was recognized by tastemakers at Cannes. Dolan was one of two directors to‎ receive the prestigious Jury Prize. The other filmmaker? Jean-Luc Godard.