He’s baaa-aaack. After the spectacular one-two stumble of his forays outside Canada — to France in It’s Only the End of the World and America in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan — world cinema’s poutiest auteur, 30-year-old Xavier Dolan, returns to his native Quebec for Matthias & Maxime, a dramedy of repressed homosexual desire. If only it were a return to form.
There’s nothing glaringly wrong with the new movie. Centering on a pair of childhood best friends (played by Dolan and Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) grappling with their more-than-platonic feelings for each other, it’s amiable enough, even occasionally affecting. And those who break out in hives at Dolan’s usual stylistic and tonal extravagances can put away the Benadryl: Matthias & Maxime is notably restrained by the writer-director’s standards. There are no fourth-wall-breaking aspect-ratio changes. The screaming matches can be counted on one hand and the torrents of tears come less frequently. Even the song selections are relatively subdued (no Celine Dion, though a few glorious seconds of Britney’s “Work Bitch”).
What’s missing is the blazing urgency — the purpose and passion that made movies like Laurence Anyways, Heartbeats, Tom at the Farm and Mommy, for all their excesses and errors of taste, play like the work of an artist putting his wildly, thrillingly, at times grotesquely beating heart right up on the screen. Those films flaunted a sense of formal and emotional risk-taking, but also a dramatic richness — messy, complicated characters, layers of provocative ambiguity, tension and stakes.
One problem with Matthias & Maxime is that its premise — two ostensibly straight friends are stirred after they’re made to kiss for a friend’s short film — today registers as quaint, even dated. Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday and Argentine director Marco Berger’s Plan B are among many movies having already explored the simmering homoerotic impulses beneath heterosexual male friendships, as well as the oppressive constraints of traditional masculinity. And as a study of the persistent internalized homophobia of even this new, “woke” generation, Matthias & Maxime struggles to come up with anything compelling to say.
None of that would be especially bothersome had Dolan given us a reason to truly care about these characters and their tangled sentiments. But the bond between the titular protagonists is never established vividly enough for us to fully feel the aftershock of that catalytic embrace. While this is perhaps Dolan’s least abrasive work, it’s also among his least involving.
We first see Matt and Max side by side on the treadmill, two twentysomething besties sweating it out. Scruffy, tattooed Max (Dolan), who comes from blue-collar suburban Montreal, works at a bar and takes care of his ailing mom (Mommy’s Anne Dorval), a snarling, bathrobe-clad invalid with scraggly hair and a cigarette often dangling from her lips (Dolan can’t resist a monstrous mother). Handsome Matt (D’Almeida Freitas) is more ambitious and put-together, a corporate-ladder climber with family connections and a slightly prissy side (his friends tease him about always correcting their grammar).
Early on, the two meet up with four of their close long-time buds (played by Pier-Luc Funk, Samuel Gauthier, Antoine Pilon and Adib Alkhalidey) at a lakehouse for a weekend of smoking pot and shooting the shit. Also present is Erika (Camille Felton), the younger sister of one of the dudes, who announces that she’s making a short film and needs two men to play the leads. (A petulant hair-flipper who peppers her French with American slang and social media catchphrases, Erika is by far the most entertaining character.)
Max and Matt end up being the lucky duo. Dolan suggests their bro-ish intimacy (one pees while the other brushes his teeth beside him, etc.), but doesn’t spend much time delineating their particular dynamic — what their closeness consists of, what makes their friendship tick. Instead, we get some fairly generic group hangout scenes, the dialogue flying fast and furious as the six guys rib and rile each other up.
Dolan cuts to black right before Matt and Max have to kiss for the short film. But he effectively conveys the impact of the moment on the former in the movie’s most inspired sequence, which finds Matt taking a frenzied early-morning swim across the lake and back — a strange, semi-comic act of sublimation.
Matt and Max go their separate ways after the weekend, and Dolan keeps them apart for the story’s long middle stretch. Max tends to family business, while Matt distances himself from his friends, telling girlfriend Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay) that he’s tired of the gang’s same old “jokes and songs.” Both boys do a lot of sulking and soulful staring into the distance.
In much of the director’s best work, he employs baroque visual flourishes and musical cues to conjure the turbulent inner worlds of his characters. Here, his approach is lower-key and more straightforward, with a muted palette and the handheld camera keeping close tabs on the leads.
Dolan is a fine actor, controlled and sympathetic, and D’Almeida Freitas, with his dark brow and aquiline nose, cuts a brooding romantic figure. But psychological realism proves a challenge for the filmmaker, and Matthias & Maxime never brings the emotional turmoil of these two young men to persuasive life. We get that they’re fighting to fully grasp, and accept, their feelings for one another, but since we don’t really know the specifics of their bond — their shared history, their chemistry — those feelings fail to vibrate with meaning or fascination.
Dolan fills in the background with broad strokes and secondary figures, including a few of the boys’ clucking, thickly made-up moms (a quintessentially Dolanian touch) and Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats) as an obnoxious Toronto exec whom Matt has to show around town. The erotic tension between the two is clear; the character’s function, aside from suggesting the homosexual undertones of back-slappy, boys-club machismo, is less so.
Things come to a head at Max’s farewell party in a scene that gives off some heat, though Dolan nearly botches it with the kind of tinkering he mostly refrains from in this film (slow-mo, a convenient rainstorm, cranked-up music). The final impression is of a movie miming an emotion that’s never actually felt.
“I want to understand,” Max pleads with Matt toward the end, in the screenplay’s most evocative and haunting line. The mysteries of male desire may indeed be profound; Matthias & Maxime, alas, doesn’t do much to bring us closer to solving them.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Sons of Manual
Writer-director: Xavier Dolan
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas, Pier-Luc Funk, Samuel Gauthier, Antoine Pilon, Adib Alkhalidey, Anne Dorval, Micheline Bernard, Marilyn Castonguay, Catherine Brunet, Harris Dickinson
Producers: Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan
Executive producers: Michel Merkt, Kateryna Merkt, Phoebe Greenberg, Michael Kronish, Nathanael Karmitz, Elisha Karmitz
Director of photography: Andre Turpin
Operated by: Yves Belanger
Music: Jean-Michel Blais
Editor: Xavier Dolan
Production designer: Colombe Raby
Costumes: Pierre-Yves Gayraud, Xavier Dolan
International Sales: Seville International