I Killed My Mother -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

CANNES -- In "I Killed My Mother," 20-year-old Quebecois newcomer Xavier Dolan has given us a somewhat uneven film that demonstrates a great deal of talent. In the vein of "Ma Vie en Rose" (if not quite as polished and mature) and other gay adolescent coming-of-age films of comic rebellion, it's a congeries of brilliantly achieved cinematic moments and repetitive, massively self-indulgent gestures of acting out.

In any case, the film is entertaining enough to attract paying customers and imaginative enough to attract critical support as well. It should be given a look by distributors in all territories and will have a full and happy life on the fest circuit.

Hubert, superbly played by Dolan himself, is a talented 16-year-old who feels superior to his doltish classmates. He's also just discovering his gay sexuality and wars constantly with his mother, Chantal (Dorval), at whom he rails throughout the film. Their mammoth fights are often hilarious, at least at first, as they pile on mountains of mutual insults. Eventually, Hubert is sent to a boarding school, an act which precipitates whatever tension the slim plot manages to conjure up.

The camera obviously likes Dolan, and Hubert comes across as attractive and sympathetic, even when he's screaming. The gay theme is overt and unashamedly offered, but underplayed and handled with enough delicacy to make it seem relatively unimportant in the general scheme of things. The real guts of the movie concern the conflicting feelings that all of us feel toward those we love the most, and in this area, Dolan shows himself to be wise beyond his tender age.

He also has seen a lot of movies, and is not shy about borrowing freely from them. The basic idea of telling his teacher that his mother is dead (the source of the title) comes from Truffaut's first film, "The 400 Blows." Delicate moments that mix accentuated slow-motion bodily movement with a heavily stringed orchestral score were obviously inspired by Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love." But none of this really matters, because Dolan's delight at having discovered cinema, and immersing himself in it, is infectious.

Dolan also invents a few tricks of his own, some of which work better than others. The many scenes set at dining tables (the locus classicus of cinematic family squabbles) are weirdly shot with mother and son side by side. Perhaps this is because it was just easier for a tyro director to frame the shots this way, but it more likely bespeaks a conscious attempt to heighten the film's artificiality.

Other entries in this vein are character names like Lemming and Rimbaud with which Doland amuses himself. Close-ups also are consistently and intentionally "badly" framed, with large empty spaces to the right or left of the visualized heads.

Another technique is the black-and-white moments of self-reflection that tend toward the philosophical and give the film whatever heft it possesses. The biggest faults are inconsistent characterization, a wavering tone, and occasionally unclear character motivation. But these storytelling problems are relatively easy to overcome, and certainly will be overcome in Dolan's next film. What is more difficult to acquire, and which Dolan already has in spades, is such an exuberant cinematic and comic imagination.

Festival de Cannes -- Directors' Fortnight

Sales: Rezo
Production company: Mifilifilms (Canada)

Cast: Anne Dorval, Xavier Dolan, Suzanne Clement, Francois Arnaud, Patricia Tulasne, Niels Schneider, Monique Spaziani
Director-screenwriter-producer: Xavier Dolan
Director of photography: Stephanie Weber-Biron
Production designer: Anette Belley
Music: Nicholas Savard-L'Herbier
Editor: Helene Girard

No rating, 100 minutes