Xavier Dolan, Mile-End's very own boy wonder opens up to NIGHTLIFE.CA about Laurence Anyways
It’s a frosty Sunday morning in February, and everyone walking into Mile-End haunt EM Café for a laid-back brunch does so with unusual haste, as if seeking refuge from the biting cold and gloomy weather. It’s the morning after Whitney Houston’s death, and pop culture nostalgia seems to monopolize conversations at nearby tables. So when Xavier Dolan walks into the café, rocking a scruffy beard, his ears wrapped in bulky headphones and his floppy black curls kept in check under an olive hoodie, Houston’s passing feels like the perfect icebreaker. "I was having an improvised dinner with pals when my friend Éric Bruneau broke the news to everyone," the still sleepy 23-year-old filmmaker recalls, as he gets started on his first latte. "We Wikipedia-ed it and tried to learn more... She was a great talent. Whenever I Wikipedia someone when this happens, it’s always so sad that it’s already there."
THE GREATEST LAUD OF ALL
Actor/writer/director Dolan’s own Wikipedia page might not be as extensive as that of the late R&B powerhouse, but this boy wonder sure has nothing to feel inadequate about. For one, the precocious talent – whose first features I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats won him festival showcases and prizes galore – has received widespread kudos for his tremendous poise and storytelling sophistication.
The tale of the bespectacled teenage wunderkind began when he collected a triad of prizes at the 2009 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight for his impressive, partly autobiographical debut, I Killed My Mother. Since then, Hollywood has been sending scripts, the French press goes nuts for its Cannes protégé, gay teens the world over crush hard for their favourite film geek, and Spielberg apparently wants to meet up. Not to mention Gus Van Sant telling us at last year’s TIFF that Dolan is "a promising young filmmaker we should all keep an eye out for." We’re sure even the blasé, post-crack-is-whack Whitney would be impressed.
"I’ve always behaved and thought in that delirious way," says Dolan about his extremely lofty ambitions. "When I was ten years old, I wrote a series thinking that Susan Sarandon would be the lead star. When I was in Los Angeles, I looked up Danny DeVito’s number in the phone book. It’s always been that way, with people telling me to ‘stop daydreaming’, to ‘come back down to earth’. But the truth is that when you aim so high, you either end up being exactly where you aimed for, or right under it."
The former child actor sure knows what he’s talking about. After months of speculation that his third feature, Laurence Anyways, would compete for Palme d’Or glory at Cannes, the outspoken Dolan expressed disappointment to journalists when his film was selected for the festival’s Un Certain Regard category – right under what he aimed for, remember? And as has become the norm whenever Dolan is quoted saying something that might come off as pretentious/ privileged/uppity, the backlash was immediate, with people wondering how a guy who’s three-for-three in films to selections at the world’s most prestigious moviemaking bash could actually have anything to whine about.
Photo Raphaël Ouellet
HE DISHES IT OUT, BUT HE CAN TAKE IT
Dolan isn’t interested in feigning a kind of aw-shucks, humble guy-from-the-heartland attitude, for which the average Quebecer seems to have an endless appetite (just turn to your Julie Snyder-sanctioned TV diet for proof). "The narcissistic thing has been said over and over again," Dolan says, in response to his detractors’ most recurring criticism. "I think I have an ego like every other director in the world. Heeelllllooo! A director who goes up on a stage to collect a prize, only to say, ‘Thank you, but I really don’t deserve it’ is not necessarily a humble person. It’s a poor strategy; it’s make-believe. If he doesn’t have an ego, he just places the camera and tells actors, ‘yeah, do whatever you want, it’s fine.’ Everyone has an ego – I have an ego, it’s enormous! But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my doubts. I doubt myself all the time."
Indeed, over the course of our chat, he’ll dish out some pretty harsh assessments of his previous films ("There are so many things that I despise about I Killed, from grammar mistakes to the lighting") and former drafts of Laurence Anyways ("Thank God we waited, because the first script had the promise of something interesting, but it was so… terrible!"). He’ll confess to reading anonymous bloggers’ pretty stinging comments ("the best place to self-destruct, by the way"), and in conversation, he’ll frequently pause mid-sentence to look up the "most convenient word I’m thinking of" on his wide array of iPhone reference apps – Thesaurus, Wordsmith… he’s even got a trusty Oscar Wilde quotes app. It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that he holds himself to high standards.
ACCIDENTAL GENDER BENDER
Aiming high must surely come in handy when managing the expectations and pressures of a $9 million international co-production. Clocking in at a whopping two hours and 39 minutes, Laurence Anyways delves into the stresses and strains on the relationship of a thirty-something couple, after the man (Melvil Poupaud) announces to his beloved fiancée (Suzanne Clément) that he wants to become a woman. Dolan says he didn’t set out to advocate for the rights of a community. "I guess the reason why I didn’t look at other transgender-themed movies, like Transamerica, was because I didn’t want to direct a movie about a transgender person. I wanted to tell this very ambitious love story taking place in the ‘90s, and the way in which society looks at and deals with people who are considered different."
Sexual politics aside, Dolan tells me he experienced a Eureka moment on the set of Laurence: realizing that he wants to focus on work with women. Given that his films are partly to thank for the soaring international profile of actors like François Arnaud and Niels Schneider, it’s a surprising creative stroke. "I’m not trying to have this network of actresses like a sort of fag hag clique," argues Dolan, distancing himself from queer directors with similar casting inclinations. "I just bond more easily with women. I don’t mean it’s an easy process, because it can be hard and we can fight, and they can contradict you in front of everyone, but I imagine that this should be the way artists create work – in confrontation and discussion. For example, Suzanne Clément in Laurence Anyways took her performance to dangerous, risky places that upgraded my film to a human level that I would never have expected… It’s not that I no longer want to work with men – my experiences with Melvil, François, Niels and others have been fantastic. It’s more about the fact that, despite my sexual orientation, women are my passion."
Not missing a beat, recognizing that last sentence’s endless potential for cliché, Dolan cautions this writer with a friendly warning. "Is this going to be your lead? I don’t want this to be your lead, like the big thing: ‘Women are his passion!’ It would be tacky... But true."
In theatres May 18
Watch the trailer here