Watching 'I Killed My Mother' with my mother and other reflections on 8 years profiling Xavier Dolan
CBC Arts' Peter Knegt looks back on chronicling the Quebec filmmaker's meteoric rise from the early days
This is part of a series of essays by panellists featured on the new CBC Arts talk show The Filmmakers. A panellist from each episode writes about the film being featured this week, which this week is writer and CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt discussing Xavier Dolan's J'ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother). You can watch Knegt alongside actor and filmmaker Connor Jessup and TIFF programmer Magali Silmard on the full panel here.
Appropriately enough, I first spoke to Xavier Dolan when I was visiting my mother. It was Labour Day weekend in 2009, and I had arranged a phone interview with him for the late, great print edition of Toronto magazine Xtra. It was for their annual preview of TIFF, which that year was screening his directorial debut J'ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother) hot off its much-publicized, award-winning premiere in Cannes. But not before it would screen in my mother's living room via a DVD sent to me by Dolan's publicist for the interview.
I'm almost certain that my own private rural Ontario premiere of J'ai Tué Ma Mère gave me the notable distinction of being one of the first people in the world to watch the film alone with his mère — a uniquely uncomfortable experience if you're a queer boy who spent his sexually frustrated teenage years making his mother's life hell, much like Dolan's character does in the film.
"I'm not sure if I can watch this," my mother said during one particularly explosive fight between Dolan and his onscreen mother Anne Dorval. "I'm getting PTSD."
Despite that difficulty, my mother did watch it and both of us were ultimately floored by how authentic the film felt — an authenticity that definitely had something to do with the fact that Dolan was just 16 years old when he wrote the script, and a mere 18-19 when he filmed it. This led to another pioneering emotion when I started to put together interview questions: I was one of the first journalists to feel like shit about what they had accomplished themselves while preparing to interview Xavier Dolan.
The next day, in the same bedroom where Dolan's art had retroactively imitated my own life as a teenager, I called in for the interview. I had expected a publicist to answer and then connect us, but Dolan caught me off guard by answering the phone himself. And before I could ask him anything, he quickly made me feel like I was the one being interviewed by asking me a slew of personal questions. For someone so new to giving press, it was a very clever tactic to make the interviewer feel like they were talking to a friend — which is what I did feel like by the time it came time for me to actually ask him the questions he would answer with a fascinatingly manic intellect, consistently interrupting himself to apologize for his poor English even though it was nearly perfect.
"I think that movies that discuss gay identity are often too explicative or demand too much from society," he said in the interview, schooling me for an admittedly lazy question about how he sees his film fitting into the history of queer cinema. "I didn't feel the need to put so much emphasis on it. This is not a movie about a 'queer boy' exploring his 'queer life.' It's a movie about a son and his mother."
A week or so later, I'd hear that voice from the phone yell my name on the streets of Toronto, and I'd turn around to see Xavier looking like a kid in a candy store as he held a stack of TIFF tickets to J'ai Tué Ma Mère in his hand.
"You want some?" he asked.
"How did you even know that was me?" I wondered, given that we'd never actually met.
"Oh, I looked you up on Facebook," he said, winking and then handing me two tickets before waltzing back off into a week in Toronto that was surely a life-altering experience for him.
The tone occasionally felt all over the place, and the stylistic choices a little excessive. But isn't that what a movie made by a teenager should look like?- Peter Knegt
I took the tickets and brought a friend to the screening. I was curious to watch the film with an audience that wasn't just my mother, to see if perhaps that environment had heightened my admiration for the film given it was hitting literally quite close to home. But instead, I found myself admiring it even more. Sure, there were messy elements. The tone occasionally felt all over the place, and the stylistic choices a little excessive. But isn't that what a movie made by a teenager should look like?
"OK, it's definitely pretty amazing he pulled that off," I said to my friend after the screening. "But where does he go from here? Honestly, I bet he makes one other film in like five years that is nowhere near as good as that...and then we never hear about him again."
Oh, the crow I will eat forever for that claim. As anyone paying even remote attention to film knows, Dolan has been superhumanly prolific over the past eight years, releasing six feature films with a seventh on the way. And I'd end up interviewing him for all of them, sometimes on multiple occasions for each.
As weird as it is to say as someone only "a few" years older than him, I basically watched Xavier grow up as a result, both as a filmmaker and a person — which definitely wasn't easy for him. I know people are quick to give shit to famous people, for either taking artistic risks that don't suit their own tastes or exhibiting behavior that might be considered ungrateful given their position. But when you look back at what Dolan has achieved since J'ai Tué Ma Mère, it's hard not to give him serious credit for pushing himself time and time again, never compromising his own vision or allowing an increasingly vicious parade of social media voices to destroy his own progress (though I'm sure he'd admit they came pretty close). Not only did he not just make one more film five years after Ma Mère and then disappear, he's now wholly convinced me he has what it takes to still be churning films out annually in his 90s — that is, if the society doesn't imitate the title of his It's Only The End of the World by then.
This past weekend, Dolan gave a wonderfully open interview for The Filmmakers, CBC Arts' ongoing film talk show that I had the pleasure to write for and appear on. Given that Dolan's episode ended up airing this past Labour Day weekend, it really couldn't have made for a more perfect full circle situation for my professional relationship with him. Preceding J'ai Tué Ma Mère (I Killed My Mother), Dolan and his first film perhaps found their way to a few TVs where a mother and her son got to have the same awkward experience on the exact same weekend I did eight years ago. But if not, they can curate their own anytime by clicking here.
Watch The Filmmakers this Saturday at 10:00 p.m. (10:30 NT) on CBC Television, or stream it at cbc.ca/watch. After the episode, stick around to see this week's feature presentation, Deepa Mehta's Water.