I Killed My Mother (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Though mother and son, Chantale (Anne Dorval) and Hubert (Xavier Dolan), live in the same house, they might as well be telepathically communicating from opposite sides of the globe. Hubert, sixteen years of age, and Chantale, divorced since her son was only seven, consistently fail to function on the same wavelength: when one is willing to talk, the other is a wall. Because of this, their issues pile up and it becomes unbearable for both parties—and us.
Watching their relationship unfold is like looking a dying plant and how it becomes a part of the earth once more—in slow motion. There is no happy ending, just a presentation of painful and traumatic memories. It is amazing that despite coming from a very unhappy household, Xavier Dolan, the writer and director, has found a way to get out and channel the anger, the frustration, and the trauma onto celluloid.
It has a catching visual style and behind it is confidence. Most of the picture is vibrant and colorful. A lot of effort is put on hairstyles and clothing. It is all very Almodóvar in that the desperation characters and the darkness of the material are purposefully lessened by objects that can be touched: a lamp, a painting, or a couch. There also times when Dolan switches to monochrome. He talks to the camera and clarifies what he thinks about a moment relative to the story’s arc.
However, not all of the techniques employed are effective. Particularly awkward to sit through are scenes involving slow motion. Though not prevalent throughout, they are problematic enough. Here, slow motion makes movements and facial expressions overdramatic that at times it borders on comedy. Perhaps slow motion might have worked when the camera had focused only on close-ups or only on body shots. Having entire bodies fill up the screen, there are too many distractions. Are we supposed to take note of the emotion on their faces? How a piece of intricate clothing moves within a space?
I must admit that, at least initially, I was on the mother’s side. She just wants a little bit of gratitude. And as someone who cooks for her son, drives him to places, and provides a pretty nice home for him, appreciation from time to time is not too much to ask for. I thought Hubert is a spoiled brat who has no respect for his mother. However, just when I began to ask what makes Chantale such a terrible mother in Hubert’s mind, the screenplay starts to uncoil.
At the outset, we are presented rather harmless occurrences like Chantale forgetting she had agreed to one of her son’s requests. Then we observe big things like she finding out Hubert’s secret—that he is gay and has a boyfriend (François Arnaud)—and acting as though nothing has happened even when she knows for a fact that her son is struggling so much to communicate that secret to her. In my opinion, if she really did love her son unconditionally—I believe she does love him but unfortunately that love has a limit—she would have found a way to communicate that she knew and that it was okay without necessarily blurting it out. Instead, she stays silent.
Another relationship that gets a bit of screen time—but is not as fully realized as the mother-son dynamic—is between Hubert and Mme. Cloutier (Suzanne Clément). The student-teacher relationship is sweet and occasionally unexpected in small ways. I believed their friendship and I wanted to know more about why they get along so well. The student-teacher subplot is important because it shows that Hubert does not have problems relating with women despite what is happening at home. In that way, it is hopeful. It shows that he is not incapable of sustaining normal relationships.
“I Killed My Mother” is, in a lot of ways, an impressive debut feature. The writer-director wears his influences on his sleeves—sometimes not so subtly that it distracts—but he tends to inject his own vision during some noteworthy turning points. One gets the feeling that the best from this filmmaker has yet to come.