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

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