With I Killed My Mother, writer-director Xavier Dolan makes a grandiose show of his pain and narcissism. The 20-year-old Canadian filmmaker appears in his own film as Hubert Minel, a 16-year-old cutie whose endless spats with his mother are like volleying razorblades; their volcanic fights are so richly and sensitively attuned to how insecurity informs his character’s rage that you don’t doubt the material was based on personal experience. Dolan has Jenny Lumet’s rare talent for cannily transplanting to paper how people use language as ammunition—how words ricochet during squabbles in unpredictable ways and reveal the best and worst in us all. But I Killed My Mother is a film best heard than seen, as the earnest, nimble scrubbiness of Dolan’s screenplay is ill-served by his conceited visuals, an aesthetic mode that feels insecurely borrowed from perfume commercials and the work of Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-wai.
Dolan’s baby-faced hipster has a boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud), whose relationship to his libertine mother represents for Hubert the ideal parent-child dynamic: The woman, given her frankness of expression and appetite for men and décor (she enlists her son, and Hubert, to paint the walls of her office in the style of a Jackson Pollock drip painting), represents the opposite of Hubert’s mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), an ugly eater with an uglier affinity for animal prints. Chantale is, at worst, boring, impatient, and emotionally detached, but it’s easy to see how her erratic behavior, like her promises, infuriates Hubert to the core of his being (he frequently and screamingly accuses her of having Alzheimer’s), and how it prevents him from coming clean about his sexuality.
Dolan understands that wall that separates every gay person from his or her parents at one point or another, and how their struggle to topple it, climb over it, or do nothing at all but stare at it and resent its cruel, seemingly ever-growing thickness, can become an obsession. I Killed My Mother’s best scene begins as just another fight between Hubert and Chantale, and one in which Hubert comes terribly close to fulfilling the promise—or threat—of the film’s title. His cruelty toward her is matched only by her own, as she responds to his abuse by admitting that she found out about him and Antonin (from Antonin’s mother no less), and when Hubert softens, overcome by an obvious mixture of fear and relief, she rejects his embrace, not because she objects to his sexuality, but because she resents him for not telling her.
The honest, cyclone-like emotional power of that scene is matched only by a later one in which Hubert, after being sent to a boarding school by Chantale and his absent father, returns by night to his mother’s home to express his love for her while high on ecstasy. It’s a painful acknowledgement of how people use drugs as a truth serum, a means of assessing desired states of consciousness; it’s also the best scene of its kind since the drug-tripping sequence from Dead Man’s Shoes, through which Shane Meadows hauntingly expressed his character’s pasts and presents as being interlocked in crisis.
But if the attention Dolan pays to his character’s struggle with the paradox of loving his mother without actually liking her feels remarkably honest, his style of shooting feels anything but: a conversation between Hubert and his teacher (Suzanne Clément) inside a restaurant feels ripped from a ’60s Godard film; the boy’s black-and-white bathroom confessionals (in which the camera, though mounted on a tripod, inexplicably pans around, abstracting his pretty face) suggest Calvin Klein ads; and inexplicably throughout the film, Chantale is shown walking through hallways in slow-motion, some Mike Galasso-like composition prettily filling the soundtrack, expressing nothing at all but Dolan’s obvious fondness for In the Mood for Love. These aesthetic flourishes don’t feel like projections of Hubert’s mood or interests, only the anxious flailings of a young artist still struggling to hone a visual vocabulary as remarkable and distinctive as his ear for language.