Sublimated Love, or the Emancipation of Xavier Dolan in ‘Matthias et Maxime’

I revere Xavier Dolan’s work as much as I absolutely abhor admitting that I revere Xavier Dolan’s work. I guess creating a multi-awarded screenplay at 16 warrants him some degree of cockiness; the pretentiousness of his cinema is what draws me in as an equally pretentious audience member, after all. That said, he is a very hit-or-miss filmmaker, often excelling better at screenwriting and in front of the camera than behind it. Nobody’s perfect, i.e. the elusive Death and Life of John F. Donovan and It’s Only the End of the World. But when he hits, he hits. Nobody’s perfect, but Dolan’s better-made films are as good as it gets; i.e. his best, Mommy, and now his latest, Matthias et Maxime.

While this film still has all the classic Dolan clichés—loud Quebecois spoken a hundred words a minute and difficult mother-son relationships are essentially his signature now—it is relatively more subdued. It is the story of repressed love after all, centering on two best friends (Dolan and Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) who are forced to confront what they feel for each other after kissing for a friend’s short film.

The chaos of Dolan’s dialogue is always a joy to watch, especially when he’s given the chance to really develop the characters’ dynamics as an ensemble. But it is in silence that Matthias et Maxime finds its emotional core. One averted gaze piles on top of all previous averted gazes—there are many—that the air of each room is never not thick with a painful tenderness, a gurgling quiet. It’s heartbreak, sure, but also desperation; frustration that skins you alive and exposes all your nerve endings. Suppression makes even the most minute push and pull so explosive and Dolan makes you feel every boom.

Dolan is an actor’s director, so authenticity is almost muscle memory to him now. This is his greatest strength, and it is in full display here. If only some scenes did not feel indulgent, dragging a little too long and spreading the resonance too thin. It’s hard not to fantasize about a 90-minute version, but knowing Dolan, the final cut is already stripped; so much so that it initially caught me off guard. I guess that’s why at first it was disappointing: I wanted the film to rip its heart out like his earlier films, I wanted to feel all the color and intensity and bold song choices. But I realized that these, while less overt, still exist in Matthias et Maxime. Only stickier, more subcutaneous; less grand but more potent. He’s been doing Cannes for ten years, after all, and the festival circuit can be repetitive. The monotony of his recent work can really benefit from riskier filmmaking, and in this film I see hope, I see growth.

I guess what I’m trying to say at the end of the day is that films can be soulmates too, and there will be pieces of art that enter your life just when you need it, call you by name, and hold your hand. And you will see such art as good because it makes it practically impossible for you to ever look at it separate from yourself; it will anchor itself on your daily experiences, its supporting cast almost as if lifted from your own life. And it will live in the creases of your mind and remind you every day that love is universal and it is this universality that pushes you to love still. Matthias et Maxime is different, but it’s still Dolan, finding his footing again after half a decade. The child of Cannes is back, finally.

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