I Killed My Mother (2009)

Xavier Dolan | 1hr 36min

The number of directors under 30 years old with film debuts that belong among the finest of their decade is limited. Paul Thomas Anderson was 27 when he made Boogie Nights. Orson Welles was 25 when he both directed and starred in Citizen Kane. Then there is Xavier Dolan, standing alone in his own category – at 19 years old, the Canadian teenager burst onto the indie cinema scene with I Killed My Mother, making waves with his remarkably mature, semi-autobiographical depiction of a troubled mother-son relationship. Like Welles before him, he takes on the lead role in his directorial debut, and yet this doesn’t distract him from doing some impressive work behind the camera. Dolan’s neatly composed visuals weave in bright colour palettes and expressive backdrops with a vivid sensitivity all through his film, delicately radiating his characters’ complex emotions out into the wider world.

Mirrored blocking like a Peter Greenaway film, arranged actors on either side of the frame.

At its centre we find 16-year-old Hubert, whose resentment of his mother, Chantale, burns him up with intense rage. When we first meet him, it is his most singularly defining quality, and may even come off as flat, one-note character writing, given how little else we know about him. For Dolan, this is entirely on purpose. When the two are together, Hubert feels entirely stifled, not just by his mother’s irritating habits, but also by his own blind contempt. Our introduction to her in a slow-motion close-up of her mouth biting into a cream cheese bagel is enough to irk anyone’s senses, but even more substantially, we can see for ourselves the ways in which she occasionally mishandles her son’s behaviour. She is not a bad mother, but through Hubert’s eyes as a teenager abandoned by his father, it certainly seems that way.

“When I try to imagine what the worst mother in the world looks like, I can’t do better than you.”

The camera placement is always precise – close to perfect balance in the mise-en-scène, actors on the bottom half of the frame, emphasising their rich backgrounds.

There is also often a symmetry drawn through Dolan’s mise-en-scène that places either Hubert or Chantale at its centre, or which at least balances out the other side of the shot with their scene partners. At the same time, this visual harmony is usually offset by a huge amount of negative space pressing down on them from above, forcing them towards the bottom of the frame. Pawel Pawlikowski would later incorporate this device into his own stylistic repertoire with Ida and Cold War, and here the effect serves a similarly oppressive purpose, threatening to push them out of sight altogether. Incidentally, it also gives Dolan the chance to craft visual expressions of their feelings above their heads, swirling a pattern of green, yellow, and red curves on a diner wall behind Hubert as he builds a connection with his teacher, Ms Cloutier, and later shooting a night sky of bleary city lights behind him on a bus as he mulls over his misery.

Expressive colours and patterns in Dolan’s backdrops forming shapes around his characters according to their mood.
Melancholia in Dolan’s cinematography – remarkable artistry for someone not yet 20 years old.

On the occasion that Dolan’s camera does shift away from his characters entirely, he often presents these diversions as montages cutting between specific items in their environment – ornamental butterflies in Chantale’s home, religious icons around Hubert’s school, or in one particularly joyous scene, the splatters of paint he throws up on an office wall with his boyfriend, Antonin. Not only do these cutaways become extensions of Dolan’s characters, but they imbue I Killed My Mother with a beautiful formal rigour, creating a structural rhythm that is further developed in Hubert’s recurring monologues delivered to his home video camera. Though these stand out as being the only scenes in black-and-white, the muted visual tone nicely fits in with his own sensitive musings, offering a counterpoint to his otherwise volatile characterisation. Only when he is alone can he speak of his mother with genuine sorrow rather than bitterness, and fully realise the intricacies of their relationship.

“It’s a paradox having a mother that you’re incapable of loving but incapable not to love.”

Rigorous montage interludes revealing pieces of these characters’ environments.
These black-and-white home video monologues reveal an empathetic side to Hubert we rarely see elsewhere – a beautiful formal touch to his character.

With a performance as nuanced and impassioned as that which Anne Dorval delivers here, it’s not hard to understand this contradictory sentiment either. Like Hubert, Chantale holds onto a great deal of anger and stubbornness, and yet as his mother, she is far more likely to channel that frustration into protecting their relationship. At the slightest hint from her son’s headmaster that he might benefit from having a male authority at home, she flies into a rage, rejecting the insinuation that it is her parenting which has driven him away, and instead redirecting the blame towards the patriarchal systems and negligent men who have failed them.

Tracking the back of Hubert’s head into the classroom, maintaining that formal symmetry.
A deeply sensitive performance from Anne Dorval, curling up in defence when under attack from her son though lashing out when it is another adult taking aim at her parenting.

It is a shame that Hubert never sees this side of her while she is afforded a glimpse of his sensitive home videos, but as Dolan posits, this is simply the nature of these family bonds. Parents are rarely flawless, but they possess a larger understanding of their child than their child has of them, and it is that imbalance which inflicts great pain on both characters in I Killed My Mother. Though this title explicitly refers to Hubert’s lie early in the film that his mother is dead, it is clear in Dolan’s exceptionally complex character dynamics that it is also something she torturously experiences every single day, ceaselessly driving them both deeper into the inescapable, unsolvable problem of their own contemptuous love.

I Killed My Mother is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s