Review: I Killed My Mother (2009)

Synopsis: Hubert (Xavier Dolan), 16-year-old closeted homosexual, can’t stand his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval). Everything about her irritates him, from her vulgar behaviour to her bad taste in wardrobe. But when he criticises her, she feigns indifference. One day he announces his decision to leave home, to go to live with his best friend Antonin (François Arnaud). She gives in, but a few days later, when she finds out from Antonin’s mother that the two boys are lovers, she changes her mind. Hubert is furious and runs away. He stays with a teacher who is sympathetic to his dilemma, but Chantale, tired of this ongoing war, turns to the boy’s father to see if he can reason with their son.

I Killed My Mother, actor/director Xavier Dolan’s widely praised directorial debut, is, in simple terms, a portrait of the complex bond between a young man and his deplorable mother. Dolan’s pivotal adulation for cinema is clearly reflected through his filmmaking style, and the way he borrows tricks – slow motion and penetrating camera angles – used by filmmakers he is clearly trying to emulate – Gus Van Sant, Gregg Akari and Pedro Almodóvar are three names that leap to mind. However, instead of blatantly copying these techniques, he adapts and weaves them into his own brand of storytelling, making them very much his own style and reflection of his own creativity.

He uses the camera and frame positioning to beautifully emphasise the separation of mother and son, which, considering he’s also the films central character, is not only an incredible achievement for a first time director, but also a mind-blowing one for someone so young and inexperienced. The camera, which is almost entirely locked into medium shot or extreme close up, never lets the characters out-of-sight, and sublimely captures the angst and emotionally shutdown nature of their lives. In addition, the film is beautifully scored by Nicholas Savard-L’Herbier with sounds that seamlessly compliment the tone and emotional distortion of the exceptionally constructed and procured scenes.

The script, also a product of the multi-talented Dolan, is well-paced, insightful and unexpectedly packed full of dark humour. The dialogue is forthright and unpredictable, which makes it even more believable, as if coming straight from Dolan’s childhood. The relationship between mother and son, though authentic for the most part, is made slightly less so by the constant arguments and shouting matches they share. Thankfully, then, the indisputable tension is broken up by a candid monologue by Hubert, flashbacks to his idyllic childhood and once treasured relationship between mother and son, and a brilliantly conceived and executed illustration of homosexuality. For the most part, it’s a tremendous balance, even if it does start to feel a little too organised and pretentious towards the end.

The performances across the board are top-notch. Both Dolan and Dorval deliver astonishingly lifelike performances as Hubert and Chantale respectively. Dolan conveys the teenage angst terrifically, while Dorval balances Chantale’s clueless yet caring nature to truly wondrous avail, bearing much of her taut emotion in her eyes. Arnaud, Suzanne Clément and Niels Schneider, who fill out the more substantial supporting roles, each deliver equally fraught, imperative turns.

I Killed My Mother is, quite explicitly, a remarkable portrait of the tempestuous relationship between a mother and a son. Not only does Dolan display a strong cinematic eye and technical expertise beyond his tender years, but also the maturity to write a deeply resonant, almost semi-biographical, coming-of-age tale.

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