Chances are good that you don’t know the works of writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan — and that is a crying shame. Dolan is Quebec’s wunderkind of cinema who, since turning nineteen, has put out five amazing pieces of film that show the practice, originality and power of someone much older and more experienced than the now-26-year-old appears in form. Distribution woes have kept most of his canon hard to find, but his (technically) fourth film, Tom at the Farm, opens this Friday in Denver — and it may be his most excitingly accessible yet.
During my tenure as programming manager at the Denver Film Society, I always felt like I'd discovered Dolan like a rare coin hidden in a box behind a drawer. I leapt at the chance to get his films onscreen as soon as they trickled into the States, because he had something to say in his high-pitched Qubecoise way. I identified with his queer leanings, and colorful and vibrant eye, and I was jealous as hell that such a young man had such a vision and understanding right out of the box. Now, by playing with a tense thriller, Dolan might be finally be ready to grab hold of the moment and shock audiences into asking for more.
With Tom at the Farm, he hits the ground running. It's the tale of grieving Tom (Dolan himself), who goes to visit the family of his recently deceased boyfriend, only to find that his family knows nothing about Tom or their son’s sexuality. Things take a turn for the dark when the boyfriend’s brother begins a knowing game with Tom, and a series of Hitchcockian twists puts the young man in some psychological crosshairs.
Start your Dolan education with this taut thriller this weekend, and then go back and get the rest of your cinematic house by catching up on the previous master works (listed in chronological order) of a young, original voice that deserves your recognition.
5) I Killed My Mother (2009)
Available on Netflix
Written when he was just sixteen, Dolan’s feature directorial debut is the gorgeous story of an enfant terrible who lashes out with all of his teen insecurities telling his teacher that his mother has died and left him alone. No one is actually murdered in the film but there's the potential homicide of a boy’s relationship with a parent, and what his burgeoning homosexuality has to do with it — and that's as interesting to watch as a crime drama. Mother also marked Dolan's first on-screen collaborations with actresses Anne Dorval, who plays the titular ‘mother,’ and Suzanne Clément, two extraordinary talents written with the depth of a Pedro Almodovar heroine, making Dolan’s grasp of this material even more gobsmacking. The film is loosely based on Dolan’s own experiences, and his teenage ecstaticism makes every moment feel as overimportant and dramatic as it must have felt at the time.
4) Heartbeats (2010)
Available on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.
An electric melodrama is really Dolan’s secret, carried across his first two films, until he learned that life creates its own significant drama (more on that later), and it is that “end of the world” feeling that imbues his brilliant Heartbeats with an actual lifeblood that sets off emotional fireworks. Dolan returns as Francis, BFF to Monia Chokri’s Marie, and the two are perfect as his queer sensibilities accent her Amelie-esque sweetness and their Laverne & Shirley-by-way-of-Montreal lifestyle colors their days just so. Enter Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a bisexual statue come to life, who falls in with both of our protagonists and effectively drives a desirous wedge between them. Once again, the drama of young love is not that serious — but with Dolan's paintbrush and a few dreamy accents courtesy of Fassbinder and Wong-Kar Wai around the edges, you’re wary when you hear our young lovers exclaim, “I could just die!” — because you worry that they just might.
3) Laurence Anyways (2012)
Available on Netflix
At 22, Dolan shifted his scope from teen-angst autopsies to a full-on emotional operating suite with a nearly three-hour opus that couldn’t be more interesting to watch at this civil and pop-culture moment. The director stays behind the camera this go-round to tell the story of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), who's in a loving relationship with powerhouse girlfriend Fred (Clément again) but that's coming to a head with his long-known desire to transition into a woman. What follows is a true cinematic epic as we follow the couple over a decade, from the late 1980s to early 1990s, falling in and out with each other as Laurence physically changes but remains emotionally locked on Fred, who can’t transition her own feelings. Normally, when a filmmaker builds a so-called epic, he dreams his lens to the depth and width of Cinemascope, which opens up the sides of the frames to huge vistas and emotions — but with Laurence, Dolan went the opposite direction and returned to the bygone aspect ratio of 4:3, which effectively traps its characters' emotions and world in an intimate box that we, claustrophobically, only want to see them bust out of by the time the credits roll.
2) College Boy (2013)
Watch the whole thing on YouTube
Marking his first music video, and testing with an even tighter aspect ratio (1:1) that mimics the feel of Instagram and its window on our daily, intimate lives, Dolan’s vision of this song from French pop/new wave outfit Indochine presents a black-and-white tale of a young man (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) put through the wringer of a gang of prep-school bullies. This video comes with an explicit warning notice, though, as we’re led through a harrowing takedown of our victim in biblical terms, as everyone around stands by, blindly. Though tough to stomach, it’s a vibrant reminder that the epidemic of mental and physical abuse set forth by bullies can feel like a crucifixion to those silently suffering the slings and arrows of yet another terrifying school day.
1) Mommy (2014)
Available on Amazon, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play
A river of motherhood runs through all of Dolan’s films — sometimes it’s a spring, sometimes it’s a gushing river — and this reunion with Dolan's I Killed My Mother costars Dorval and Clément is a torrent of emotion. Sticking behind the camera again, he casts College Boy’s Pilon as an emotionally unstable and often violent young man being raised by his single mother (Dorval) who is reaching the end of her rope trying to successfully raise her child and possibly even have a life of her own. When she reaches out to a damaged but interested neighbor for help, she opens a door both for fresh air and potential escape for the both of them. Mommy has no roots in Dolan’s usual LGBTQ storytelling, but given the great work on display for all three of his leads and its deep humane thread, that's a barely noticeable quibble. And though it may seem pretentious, the use of the 1:1 ratio, as in College Boy before, mimics a tight, intimate window where we watch this story unfold and even allows a playful moment where that confinement opens up to reveal a wide, beautiful world hidden behind a masked darkness.
Tom at the Farm opens Friday, August 14, at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax and the Alamo Drafthouse, 7301 South Santa Fe Drive. Get tickets and showtimes at denverfilm.org and drafthouse.com respectively.