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Review: Matthias & Maxime Finds Xavier Dolan in a Swooning Holding Pattern

Dolan’s characters are of such broad definition that it’s impossible to regard them as anything other than aesthetic objects.

Matthias & Maxime
Photo: MUBI

Xavier Dolan’s cinema is possessed of a jubilant alchemy that makes even his most half-baked ideas difficult to resist. His latest, Matthias & Maxime, introduces its leads, best friends since childhood, working out together in a Montreal gym. Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), an up-and-coming lawyer, is living a seemingly content yuppie lifestyle with his girlfriend (Marilyn Castonguay), while Maxime (Dolan), a bartender who works at a dive bar, is pondering a move to Australia. As the friends keep pace on adjacent treadmills, their easy banter reveals them to be content with one another despite their vastly different lots in life—until a bros weekend at a lakeside cottage sparks feelings in both of them when they’re coaxed into starring in an on-screen make-out session for a student film.

There’s something specifically non-specific about the lingo that bounces between the high-strung characters of Dolan’s films. Maxime, then, with his contentedly laconic demeanor, stands apart. He sports a birthmark that spreads across his face like an island, a writerly shortcut to symbolize a troubled life. Dolan understands poverty as a physical state, and aestheticizes it accordingly, so it’s a matter of course that Maxime comes to feel like a fetish object for Matthias, whose uptight personality is laid out in a long discussion on his proclivities toward grammar Nazism. He’s uncomfortable with anything that impinges on his manhood, and balks at Erika’s (Camille Felton) request to star in her film, after which Maxime tries to cool him down by reminding him that maybe they kissed “one time” years ago.

Matthias & Maxime takes an incredibly lackadaisical approach to its subterranean love story. Following that fateful night at the lake house, Dolan proceeds to cross-cut between the friends’ day-to-day activities in an attempt to stress the gulf in class between them, but the filmmaker never offers a compelling impression that differences in class actually color the characters’ behaviors toward one another. As such, the film suggests a neutered version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, its almost indifferent interest in the social ties that beget status matched by its characters’ half-articulated needs and desires.

What remains are characters of such broad definition that it’s impossible to regard them as anything other than aesthetic objects. Matthias and Maxime are both lookers, but there’s little chemistry between them; they’re kept apart for long stretches, but no real tension is built into that absence. When the pair is shot from outside as they do dishes, you may find yourself focusing less on the particulars of their interaction than the way the frame suggests a cellphone’s portrait mode. Consistently, the film’s aesthetic creates a barrier between us and the characters, while wacky ephemera, from waterbeds to thrift-store art, is a conspicuous component of most settings. For Dolan, a scene can only be improved by adding beaded doorway curtains or lingering on freshly painted fingernails. He adores the look of people and things, the sounds of words, but there’s no apparent interest in what’s behind those signifiers, as he resorts to devices that scream the point when a whisper will do, like a wordless interlude of Matthias getting lost during a swim across a lake, as an overbearing piano track plays.

Dolan remains consistent in his objectification of desire, the emotional and sensual effects of people and their words, but he runs into trouble in his depiction of this film’s women, almost all of them defined by their quirks. Teenage Erika talks with such exaggerated Americanisms, all OMG’s, so’s, and like’s, that you may wonder if the 31-year-old Dolan has ever actually heard a Gen Zer speak. Elsewhere, the film is downright obsessed with making women seem like abject beings. The older ones are depicted as squawking birds, dressed in vintage attire, as if the ‘80s never ended; at a showing of Erika’s film, one of her mother’s friends (Monique Spaziani) not only fans herself under the collar at Matthias and Maxime’s screen debut, but likens the film’s use of red to “Eldomóvar,” in what may be Matthias & Maxime’s most self-critical moment. And Dolan regular Anne Dorval chews up scenery left and rigght in the role of Maxime’s recovering-addict mother, but she’s only ever viewed from the outside, an obstacle for Max to overcome in his journey toward sexual and economic liberation.

Very little in the film holds up to much scrutiny. Dolan’s propensity for needle drops reaches some kind of low during a montage of images covering a board games night, soundtracked by Arcade Fire’s “Signs of Life,” which references “all the cool kids stuck in the past” with eye-rolling earnestness. This corny fatuousness would seem to be the point of everything Dolan is up to in Matthias & Maxime. If his motive is irony, then the passionate romance doesn’t work, and if this is deadly serious melodrama, then the kitsch of his production is cloying. Yet there are moments across many of the film’s extended sequences, as they cut between eyelines with such relentless frequency, surveying every idiosyncratic figure’s goofball reactions to a topic at hand, assaulting us with seductive images of desire, that you may find your misgivings swept away. At the very least, by remaining in his swooning comfort zone of longing looks and neurotic dialogue, Dolan finds more ways to say the same thing.

Cast: Xavier Dolan, Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas, Pier-Luc Funk, Antoine Pilon, Samuel Gauthier, Adib Alkhalidey, Catherine Brunet, Marilyn Castonguay, Micheline Bernard, Anne Dorval, Harris Dickinson Director: Xavier Dolan Screenwriter: Xavier Dolan Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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