Part of me envies Xavier Dolan. He started out directing at the age I am now; 6 years later, he ends up on stage at Cannes alongside a Godard film. I’ve been meaning to check out Dolan’s films for a while, and I think I’ve started with his best.
It’s very difficult to describe this film, except that I love how it intersects the teenage ‘coming of age’ story with a more adult, maternal story. Neither of the two narratives seem more dominant, though I expected a greater focus on Steve’s character. But I’m glad that’s not the case, because Steve isn’t just a character in himself, he’s an enabler, who creates the narrative that affects the lives of the other characters; a point Die makes whilst drunk within the film itself.
It’s a film I couldn’t show to my own mum, because it would just be too personal and speak too much to her that she’d end up in tears.
A lot has been said about the film’s 1:1 aspect ratio. Reviews have called it “constricting”, reflecting a sheltered existence and all the rest of it, but more obviously, it’s a ‘selfie’ aspect ratio. A phone aspect ratio. How do we see the world – through phone screens and the height of people, or through vast cinematic vistas? The realistic, or the idealised, as we see the screen expand outward past the pillarboxes for some of the more euphoric scenes, as with the reveal of the otherwordly landscape in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).
In other words, do we favour people or locations? The little neighbourhood in Montreal is nondescript, with a supermarket and some neighbors and that’s about it. Montreal as a location becomes a character, and its ordinary, normalised life says a lot about our characters.
Other observations: the majority of the film’s score is presented to us through Steve’s perspective, as we become locked in to the music being played through his headphones, directing us away from the female perspectives of the film.
In many ways, it’s a film about communication. Steve isn’t able to communicate with other people in the way expected of him so instead resorts to violence, but we still see him as a caring person with aspirations and attachments and feelings of compassion to both his mother and dead father. Meanwhile, their neighbor deals with a stutter, an aspect Steve mocks. Steve’s mother isn’t sure how to deal with her son, unsure how to use the right tenor with him, unsure whether juvie is the best place for him. Yet Steve wants to communicate through art. Another aspect is the divide between French-Canadian and English. Steve knows English through passing phrases and swearwords, but is used to French-Canadian. English holds a covert, secretive meaning.
But there are so many heartwrenching moments and gutwrenching moments that I can’t decide whether I side more with the mother or her son. Is Die right to sign the forms; is Steve right to act like this? Can I sympathise with his position?
It’s a film about questions and it ends on a rhetorical one – and I really do think it’s one that will still be talked about when the 2010s are but a hazy memory.