[Published on Beat.com.au, March 18 2011]
Adolescence is a time that I, like many, would prefer to forget. Convinced that the universe centred upon my greasy, gangly ego, each second was magnified by a Molotov cocktail of overactive hormones and overblown emotions that lay far too close to the surface. Luckily, I didn’t have a video camera with which to narrate my cultivated torture. Xavier Dolan, the then 19 year-old writer, director and star of I Killed My Mother, is not so fortunate.
Protagonist Hubert Minel (played by Dolan himself) suffers from your run-of-the-mill 17 year-old angst. And like every good histrionic teen, the object of his ire is his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval) – a solarium-kissed bookkeeper with a penchant for gaudy outfits and gaudier soft furnishings (their suburban Montreal home so plastered with clashing animal prints it is more akin to a menagerie).
Hubert, however, could well have stepped out of a Godard film, albeit in the wrong decade and the wrong French-speaking country. Or so he thinks. Unable to comprehend how he from these loins came forth, Hubert’s hysterical hatred of his mother’s “revolting clothes” and “ignorant suburbanite expressions” often reveals more about the teenage struggle for self-definition than his mother’s purported ineptitude.
Clearly autobiographical, it is difficult not to view Dolan’s coming-of-age story as a teenage boy’s wish fulfillment writ large. Here he can subject his mother to the pissy and precocious tirades he’s always fantasized, date an artistic Adonis named Antonin Rimbaud (conflating Antonin Artaud and Arthur Rimbaud), and even have his schoolteacher validate his well-rehearsed pain: “you’re swimming in troubled water with the modern world’s rage,” she tells him, “but with the frail poetry of another era”.
At times, watching I Killed My Mother is as uncomfortable as having your teenage diaries read out loud, the self-absorption of adolescence shining through in ways I don’t think the young Dolan always intends. Yet this is also the film’s key strength. That explosive mix of selfishness, narcissism, insecurity and hubris is difficult to conjure once we reach the world of adulthood. Dolan, however, captures it in all its awkward beauty and utter cringe-worthiness, because it is a threshold he has yet to cross.
I Killed My Mother will be playing at ACMI from April 7-28. For session information, visit acmi.net.au.