Because it’s a Xavier Dolan film, Matthias & Maxime has to be approached as if it were a bomb liable to go off any minute – his films often do.
We meet the two guys, friends since childhood, on a rowdy weekend away at a lake house where they’re about to take part in another friend’s movie. They’ve been roped in slightly against their will by the incredibly irritating Erika (Camille Felton), whose French keeps lapsing in a faux casual way into hipsterish English, “whatevs” and the like. And so here Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Max (Xavier Dolan) are acting out a key scene. The movie is all about sexually fluid relationships and the two characters are about to make out. Being men of the world, Matthias and Maxime take this sort of thing in their stride, because non-binary sexuality is where it’s at these days and anyway it’s all just acting, right?
But didn’t something happen between these two while they were at high school? Maybe, whatevs. Anyway, lights, camera, action… And they kiss… And boom.
Except, being a Dolan film, the boom is muffled. And, being a Dolan film, the idea isn’t played for laughs, as it was in, say, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday in 2009. Instead Dolan squeezes it for maximum emotional effect, though the Brazilian soap-opera histrionics are given a cool, Canadian topcoat.
Though the labels seem fatuous in a film at least partly examining what the labels mean, Maxime is gay. He’s about to go to Australia, to get away from his awful, raging, chain-smoking, slatternly mother (another great performance by Dolan regular Anne Dorval). Matthias is straight and is on the point of to settling down finally with his lovely longtime girlfriend. Except that suddenly she’s giving him sideways glances. What’s up with Matthias’s behaviour? Why, when he goes swimming in the lake, does he swim so far out that he nearly drowns. Why so distracted at the law firm he works at? Why is Matthias so off?
Of course we know what’s happened, and Dolan knows we know. Whether you’ll enjoy being toyed with as Dolan withholds resolutions for longer than seems strictly necessary depends, probably, on how much Dolan angstifying you can take.
Matthias & Maxime is a short story blown up to feature length, the sort of film that would benefit enormously from a half hour lopped off its two hour running time, possibly even more. It’s no Tom at the Farm or Mommy, both also “small” Dolan films built with an explosive core, but with more characters and psyches in play. Here, on one side is the tormented Matthias – only actual beating of the chest was missing from Freitas’s wracked performance. On the other side the cooler, less perturbable Maxime’s port wine stain splashed across his face suggests something more emotional might be going on (not least in Dolan’s bizarre approach to externalisation of emotion).
A melodrama pure and simple, really, traditionally the realm of the “woman’s picture”, as they used to be called. Women don’t get the best of it in Matthias and Maxime – they’re either self-serving and up themselves, like the awful Erika, fucked up like Maxime’s ex-addict mother, or they’re vague cookie-cutter girlfriend types like Matt’s Sarah (Marilyn Casonguay).
Xavier Dolan hits 30 years old with this film, and there’s a sense that he’s coming to terms with the way the cultural landscape has changed in the ten years or so since he turned heads with his debut, I Killed My Mother. Then, assertion of identity was all; now, identity as a fixed idea is under scrutiny. Where Dolan was once Maxime, now he’s Matthias. Or maybe he’s both. Why be so binary about it, right?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021