The 2009 movie I Killed My Mother by French Canadian Xavier Dolan (born 1989) which received 3 Cannes Awards and a standing ovation, is remarkable in several ways.  Aside from the provocative title (don’t worry, the teenage protagonist Hubert, a part autobiographical creation, and played by Dolan himself, doesn’t actually kill his Mum) there is the fact the director was only 19 when he made it. Though bear in mind in this context, that there have been at least two major French Canadian artistic prodigies in the last couple of generations. The acclaimed novelist Marie-Claire Blais (born 1939) author of A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and Tete Blanche, two harrowing studies of lonely childhoods, made her debut aged 19 in 1959 with that incendiary autobiographical work, Mad Shadows. As for inordinately youthful film directors, we would need to look across to Iran, where the miraculously talented Samira Makhmbalaf (born 1980) made her poignant masterpiece about two incarcerated children, which was based on real events, The Apple, when she was all of 17.

Xavier Dolan’s debut is equally outstanding for the painfully explosive exchanges between the son aged 16 and his late-forties mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval, born 1960) where clearly Hubert loves and hates her with an equal intensity. As he puts it:

‘If anyone hurt my mother in any way, I would kill them. I would, I would kill them. But the fact is, there are hundreds of people I know who I like more than I like my mother.’

Chantale is a single parent as her husband Richard vanished when Hubert was small, unable to cope with the mundane demands of parenthood. He sees Hubert only at Christmas and Easter, and when the rows between mother and son reach boiling point, she slyly challenges him to go and live with his father. That is never going to happen of course, and perhaps explains why Hubert’s rage is often so volcanic. The exhausting dynamic is illustrated vividly at the start of the film, where she is driving him to his Montreal school and en route to her busy office job is both eating her breakfast and applying make-up. Hubert tells her the cream cheese at the corner of her mouth is disgusting to behold, and orders her bit by bit to remove it, so that in effect he turns into a tyrannical parent admonishing a child in the form of his mother. He also berates her for putting make-up on while driving as it is so dangerous. Pushed to the limits by his humourless nagging, she responds that he is just like his Dad, haughty and arrogant and considering himself better than everyone else. This is true as far as it goes, for when the next day she kindly asks him how his day has gone, aside from contemptuously lecturing her on the feebleness of her small talk, he says all the other schoolkids are illiterate morons…

As they row in the car, we are mostly on Chantale’s side, and when she says she is not just a machine for making meals and washing laundry, we can hear the authentic tones of the routinely if invisibly oppressed. In the end she kicks him out and orders him to walk the rest of the way to school. There he rapidly gets his own back when requested by his teacher Ms Clouthier (Suzanne Clement, born 1969) to survey-style quiz his parents about their jobs and work routines. He tells Julie Clouthier truthfully that he never sees his Dad, and as for his mother, she is dead.  Chantale learns of this monstrous lie the following day, and actually storms into the class room, saying she wants a word with him outside:

‘Do I look like I’m fucking dead?’ she shouts at the assembled pupils.

This is where director Dolan shows his class, which is to say his even-handedness in terms of the petty selfishness and embarrassment factors. Hubert is not only humiliated by his Mum’s ranting in front of his peers, but by the fact she is wearing a mad and fluffy white hat that adds 20 years to her. Later she is seen sporting a blue sweater with a bright orange winding creeper pattern on it. Worse still, when he comes home excitedly to say he has a solution to their problems, because he and his friend Antonin (Francois Arnaud, born 1985) will rent a flat together, she asks him to delay the discussion while she watches her favourite awful quiz show. This distraction is responsible for her vaguely agreeing to his plan for independence (his grandmother has left him money, so he can afford it) but then the next day, still watching the rubbish quiz show, she retracts her permission and says it’s crazy letting a 16 year old kid live away from home. Her fickleness drives Hubert insane of course, so that he rushes out and seeks out Julie Clouthier, and ends up spending the night at her house. The teacher is reluctant to have him there for obvious professional reasons, but she is moved by his plight as she herself has not spoken to her own father for a decade. Hubert also has a precocious literary talent and Julie is submitting one of his essays for an important competition on his behalf. At one point she rests her hand rather too long on his shoulder, and we wonder whether she is attracted to her very handsome pupil, and this again is where our teenage director has kept some of his thematic aces up his sleeve.

So far, we have seen Hubert and the equally handsome Antonin smoking dope together in the latter’s bedroom, and his laid-back single mother Helene (Patricia Tubasne) the polar opposite of Chantale, looking on approvingly and offering them alcohol. Helene also has a strong line in gorgeous young men half her age as one-night stands, and they parade around naked while grinning at the two stoned schoolboys. Even better, she works for an advertising agency and invites the pair of them to come in and do an avant garde collage on its walls, in the style of Jackson Pollock and his dripping technique. However, we are at least half way through the film before Helene surprises both Chantale and you and me, by coyly telling Hubert’s Mum that he and Antonin have been together, as an item, for 6 months now. Chantale had no inkling that her son was gay, so she is hurt by his secrecy and the fact that babbling Helene realises that Hubert has been keeping her in the dark.

Their reality becomes more explicit as after they have finished their avant garde dripping, Hubert and Antonin end up naked on the office floor and then have passionate sex. All of which notional personal liberation fades into perspective, when Hubert’s gruff dad Richard (Pierre Chagnon) invites him to his house at short notice. His fatherly embrace is stiff and perfunctory for he has also secretly invited Chantale there, as the pair of them have been plotting their son’s future. Because of his terrible school report, they are sending him to a boarding school out in the country, noted for its regime of discipline and hard work. Hubert of course goes berserk at this point and commences a four letter tirade against his unfeeling Dad, the one who never comes near him but is engineering his future by sending him to the equivalent of a country jail.

‘Fuck you, you motherfucker!’

Richard moves threateningly towards him, but of course at 16 years old there is nothing Hubert can do, if both parents are determined to have him incarcerated. When he enters the fearsome school, it proves to be a mixed bag. There is discipline right enough, as incredibly the pupils are penalised for handing their assignments in too slowly at the end of the class. Nevertheless, Hubert starts an affair with an attractive schoolmate called Eric, who sneaks him out to a nightclub where the pair of them take some speed. Cue Hubert ending up back at his mother’s house high and gabbling and ecstatic and repeatedly telling Chantale how much he loves her. She says she loves him too, but sends him back determinedly to school, and the next day he is badly beaten up by 2 homophobic pupils. He then succeeds in running away, for Antonin turns up with his mother’s car, but as he drives his lover away he tells Hubert that he is completely selfish. Then after a pause adds:

“But I love you.”

Still on the run, Hubert makes a second visit to Ms Clouthier, where she stresses how dangerous it if for her to have him there. Julie then reveals two significant things. That her stern old Dad who she hadn’t spoken to for ten years, had suddenly written to her offering reconciliation. More important, she is also leaving her teaching job and will be travelling the world with a friend, starting tonight as it happens. So, this is goodbye for herself and Hubert…and she has no idea when she will return to the school if ever.

In the meantime, Chantale gets a phone call from the unctuous boarding school headmaster, who informs her that her son has eloped. The fugitive has also left a note saying that he can be found at his Kingdom.

‘What is the Kingdom, Madame?’

‘He means the house by the sea where we lived when he was small.’

The head then makes a catastrophic mistake by pointing out that Chantale being a single mother, perhaps Hubert needs a male presence in the house to instil some needful discipline. There is a pause of perhaps a second until Chantale ignites and delivers the most enjoyable rant in the film, outdoing even Hubert at his most ferocious. She tells the teacher that she herself grew up with a manic-depressive mother who spent half her life in mental hospital. Then came a husband who was a coward and couldn’t face grown up responsibilities, and ran away. She meanwhile has been getting up at 5.30 every morning for 15 years to get to her exhausting job. As for the headmaster with his Bugs Bunny tie and his cheap and sexist insinuations, what the fuck would he know? Why, he is the kind of idiot who would put red in with white in the washing machine…

‘Do you really like pink underwear, you moron? Fuck you, you motherfucker! And if I don’t get a refund for the school fees within a week I will be round there at your office and I will…’

Afterwards she drives round to the Kingdom, the beautiful seascape of Hubert’s infancy, and she finds her son and Antonin together on the beach. The film ends by switching without preamble to some crackling home movie where a beautiful child is playing joyfully with his handsome mother, and the tenderness between mother and son is manifestly eternal and indestructible

The next post will be on or before Friday February 7th



A week ago I was in a charity shop in North London that was staffed by a single elderly East European gentleman, and virtually all its contents were completely inaccessible. The books were stacked on shelves at head height, and went up to about 10 feet, and as no step ladders were provided, you would either need brilliant nay freakish long sight, or a good pair of binoculars, or even a telescope to read the titles. But then the place was so badly illuminated, your nifty optical instruments might not have functioned, and add to that that a huge immovable carousel with crime paperbacks was lodged in front of and only four inches from the book shelves, so there was no way of getting nearer the focus of your interest.

I am as you’ve probably guessed a second hand books and second hand DVD man, and the DVDs likewise were stacked at a remote altitude, but far flung as they were, I was able to spot the familiar covers of those blockbuster films that monotonously people every single charity shop. Stop me if you haven’t also spotted in Oxfam and Shelter and Scope, industrial quantities of the following: Taken (2008) the action thriller scripted by Luc Besson and starring Liam Neeson, an ex-secret service man whose daughter is abducted in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers; Heat (1995) another bluff one-word titled blockbuster, with De Niro, Pacino and Val Kilmer, which is all about the cop who decides to stop a legendary criminal busy planning his last pre-retirement heist. Finally, of similar historical longevity, and with a two-word title is the 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky US comedy about an awkward Idaho schoolkid and his attempts to help his friend win the class presidency. The hero Napoleon’s grandma breaks her coccyx in a quadbike accident, so although I haven’t seen it, it does sound a mite less formulaic than other transatlantic high school ‘romps’. Though to be sure, not all of the most popular charity shop films are formula thrillers or goofy comedies, which is to say that on occasion quality really can shine through, and especially if grotesque violence is part of the mix. So it is that with Javier Bardem as the bloodless psycho toting the lethal gas gun, the DVD of that fine movie the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men (2007) featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the old-fashioned principled cop, is absolutely everywhere, often 3 copies per charity shop. The same goes for the excellent Amelie (2001) a stereoscopic parable about the comic arduousness of finding real love. Starring Audrey Tautou, whose remarkable talent is as much in her ingenious facial mobility as her words, it might well have been a worldwide hit, but for once, with its idiosyncratic and stylised direction, it actually deserved to be.

I am as you know a world cinema freak, and you might say subtitles are my middle name, but sad to say in certain parts of London that conspicuously are chockablock with top notch posh girls’ grammar schools (whose pupils might notionally wish to learn what e.g. the French and the Italians think about love in all its contradictory aspects) there is not a single subtitled film in the charity shops. High Barnet for example is a prosperous middle-class area and has about a dozen charity outlets, none of which boasts even one foreign movie, not even Amelie. Yet by inscrutable perversity, in other affluent areas where they do actually contravene the stereotypical Brexit mentality, inasmuch as they boast a single foreign movie on their Oxfam or their Shelter shelves, it is nearly always the same one, a brilliant but shocking apocalyptic satire on human greed called Delicatessen directed in 1991 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It is about a leering butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, born 1946) with a busy turnover in handymen as he keeps killing them and recycling them as food. Why I ask myself do these parochial and clearly chauvinistic areas, go for of all things, a tale about a gruesomely homicidal butcher, at least as frequently as they do for the charming and elfin Amelie, someone who has a not a trace of violence in her person and indeed is often taking on bullies and monomaniacs who try to dominate others?

The next post will be on or before Friday 24th January



There is a sandwich bar here in Hackney which calls itself ‘Freshly Sandwiches’, and that must surely be run by a foreigner, possibly a Turk or a Kurd who own many of the catering and supermarket businesses in this area. The point is that adverbs like ‘freshly’ are so called, because they ‘add to’ a verb, and of course in Freshly Sandwiches there is no verb. The proprietors have obviously confused Fresh Sandwiches with Freshly Made Sandwiches (‘made’ being a verb) and have produced a delightful fusion phrase, which let’s face it has a superior sound to it, as, to call your carry out joint ‘Fresh Sandwiches’ is to be rather on the prosaic and anticlimactic side, a bit like christening your handsome little son My Boy instead of say Benny or Montague.

Not that long ago, Hackney was regarded as a deprived area, so that businesses using faulty grammar and spelling were to be expected and tolerated. Nearby Hampstead, of course, home of the glitterati and literati, is a horse of another colour, so it was bemusing last week to see a shop front, a newsagent’s, where the hallowed area was boldly spelt Hamstead, a solecism little short of cultural treason. It reminded me of my native Cumbria, where for at least 20 years a rural slaughterhouse in a small village outside Carlisle, was signposted by the County Council Highways Department as an Abbatoir, which always made me think of a cross between the saccharine pop group and the Hebrew word for father. Being a vegetarian, I found such a ludicrous misspelling inordinately insensitive and unpleasant, and I kept thinking of penning my indignation to the same Department, but after 20 years of prevarication, someone else got there first, and now at last they have the rustic charnel house properly designated.

With London shop signs, it is not just typos like ‘confectionary’ and ‘stationary’ (used as a noun) that abound, there is also a fondness for tongue in cheek word play, frequently related to the specific metropolitan area. Hence in Brondesbury, there is a café called Brondes Age, and ingeniously in Kew Gardens the optician is called EyeQ, in line with umpteen local businesses revealing the chic letter Q as opposed to Kew in their title. Yesterday I visited the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury area (part of Islington) for the first time in my life, where I saw more of the same compulsive word play, though this time of the entertainingly laboured variety. On a plaque outside a pub called Doyle’s Tavern I beheld the following ingenious poem:

Alcohol is not in my vodkabulary

However, I looked it up on whiskeypedia

And learned if you drink too much

It’s likely tequilya

That last word saves this cautionary tale from jovial sentimentality, and the spelling of whiskey confirms that Doyle is or was an Irishman.

Further down the road, I was truly shocked to see that right in the middle of the community is a huge prison with all the usual trappings of barred windows and coiled wire at its highest reaches. I had no idea that prisons could be plonked down in the public eye so to speak, nor that this notorious one was 2 minutes walk from an overground station. HM Pentonville Prison is on the Caledonian Road, and it has a cheerful welcoming sign for the general public, and one wonders if its inmates ever see the same salutation on arrival. If they do, they are also likely to see something even more startling, for directly opposite the prison on the same major thoroughfare, is an enormous café that is called, wait for it, The Break Out Café. A quick scan online reveals that the blackness of this title is well understood, as you read from one Brian C, ‘So I ended up at the Breakout Café, ironically because I had to go into prison. But only to run a training course thankfully…’ Meaning you were only a cheerily whistling day tripper, Brian, and could have sat there all day, a free man in the Break Out after your teaching was over, had you so wished.

As for myself, I’m so naïve I am genuinely surprised the authorities haven’t forced the café to call itself something else, as that jokey name seems to be treading the precarious unknown land between incitement and vicarious wishful thinking. Because of course, every time we watch a film where the criminal is fleeing to evade the relentless cops, we always want him or her to succeed, as on some primal level we always identify with the panicking hunted rather than the determined hunter…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 16th January



My daughter Ione, her partner Ado and I, have recently spent the week before Christmas in Cyprus, my very first visit to what is regularly called the gateway to the Middle East. Meanwhile, if you’ve lived 6 years on a tiny Cycladean island like I have, you are bound to find the Greek half of Cyprus where we stayed, a radically different experience, and to feel as if your cosmopolitan registers are continually out of synchrony. For a start the place is full of an unusually random assortment of foreigners, with a scattering of expat Brits (some of the forlorn and gabbling barfly variety) but many more émigré Russians, so much so that nearly all shop signs are in Greek, English and Russian, and some in Russian only. For reasons I could never understand, even when explained at length, there are an inordinate number of Punjabis, working mostly as waitresses, and even as proficient chefs in Lebanese restaurants, some of them with good English, and some of them with barely any of the lingua franca, or much Greek come to that. Time and again in cafes, whether one spoke to the young Punjabi women in English or Greek, they did not understand, and had to go and get their Cypriot colleagues to translate. Given that they barely know a single handy tourist language, the obvious question is why are they taken on, and the cynical and half accurate view is that they undercut the locals when it comes to wages, and thus do them out of a job. In which patriotic connection, Greek Cypriots are proud to be precisely that, and politely correct you when you ask them in Greek are they Greek, by which of course you mean are they Greek-speaking, not are they Hellenes. As a relevant side issue, approximately 70% of the people of Larnaka, where we were based, evidenced numb incomprehension when I spoke to them in Greek, and more or less obliged me to speak in English. The other 30% had no problems at all with my admittedly home-made doppio, paradosiaki Greek, and I had an extremely lively conversation with a bespectacled ice cream seller by the side of the salt lake near the airport, just possibly because I was his only customer he informed me for the last 4 hours. I don’t think it too fanciful to evidence a modest amount of combative paranoia at this point, for over the years I have experienced the same thing in France, Germany and Greece (though interestingly never in good old Portugal), where they have frowned at my use of their language, feigned incomprehension, and insisted on speaking English. Perhaps not always, but it can at times turn into a dreary, not to say puerile game of irritating one-upmanship, where God knows why, they really like to see you one down.

Cyprus, as everyone knows, is half Greek and half Turkish, thanks to the mainland Turkish junta intervening in 1974, when the lookalike Greek junta of the day tried to annex the whole of the island to Greece (enosis or union as it is called). There were atrocities and bloody massacres on both sides, with massive displacement of citizens on ethnic lines, so that the Turkish Republic of Cyprus (TRNC) has very few Greeks left, and ditto with the few Turks living in the south. Though travel between the 2 halves is relatively easy these days, it is still the case that Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a legal entity by Turkey, and if you want to fly there, it has to be via Istanbul. More colourfully, as the TRNC has no extradition treaty with the UK, it was for long the case that loot-laden British criminals could go and live there lordly gargling G and Ts by their majestic villa pools, and be completely safe from the arms of the law.

Larnaka is a handsome and attractively positive city with an exhilarating sea front marked at the far end with an Ottoman castle and behind it the beautiful old Grand Mosque, the Buyuk Camii, which is still used for worship by the town’s few Muslims. Another thing to praise is the inordinate number of small independently run art galleries, often showcasing mainland Greek artists as well as Cypriots, and with the standards on display, for this relatively small city, being surprisingly and movingly high. Away from the immediate centre, predictably most of the architecture is modern faceless suburbs, interrupted by supermarkets or often enormous kiosk peripteros, and the ubiquitous souvlaki joints. There are lots of restaurants in Larnaka, the bulk of them serving Cypriot cuisine which tends towards the grilled meat of kebabs and souvlaki, and vegetarian main options invariably resolve to the native halloumi cheese, which for the first time in my life I found myself getting sick of. If you are used to the generous variety of Greek meze and ladhera, things like tomato and courgette keftedes and fava bean puree, gigantes and yemista stuffed tomatoes, you will be seriously disappointed by the Cypriot option of either tzatziki or a plate of olives. As well as competing for lunch and dinner customers, most of the promenade eateries offer bargain inclusive breakfasts which range from the hideous Full English to a Cypriot version of fried eggs, mushrooms, olives, grilled halloumi and salad, usually accompanied by toast, butter and jam. A winter season indolence can sometimes manifest itself in the latter context, for one day my Cyprus breakfast had everything present apart from the customary 2 butter pats. I said as much to the waitress who agreed there was indeed none, but added it was presently defrosting and would be ready for me in an hour’s time. As I gasped my astonishment, and echoed, an hour! Ione urged me to do something about it, and get some butter from a shop. Cue my sweating a good half hour trying 4 supermarkets over a mile-long trek, before a Polish place yielded 4 pats at a 10 humble cents each. By that time of course both coffee and toast were stone cold, but better to eat cold buttered toast than its unspeakable dry analogue.

The other curse of lazy Cypriot restaurants is the prevalence of frozen as opposed to freshly made chips/French fries. One or two breakfast places boastfully chuck them in as part of their Full English or Full Cypriot munificence, so that you have a pleasingly mountainous plateful on the lines of those scoffed by the gluttonous Three Bears in The Beano circa 1968. Yet it is impossible to exaggerate how depressing frozen chips can be on the tenor of an otherwise promising morning. To start the day with them is even worse than ending the day ditto, for it is a kind of gnawing prelude to nameless discomforts, frustrations and anticlimaxes that will unerringly keep coming your way, for no other reason but plain existential cussedness and to teach you the important moral lesson that no matter how hard you try, you will never really be in control of your life, not when someone is prepared to ruin your eggs and mushrooms by the addition of chip shaped Polyfilla. You can of course try making them palatable with the addition of Heinz tomato sauce, but you will have about as much success with that as you would by rubbing your inner thighs with the same item prior to anticipated bedroom intimacy.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 11th January