Always on My Mind: Close-Up on Xavier Dolan's "Matthias & Maxime"

The story of a conflicted friendship between men in their late 20s, Xavier Dolan has made one of his most tender and honest films.
Ren Scateni

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Xavier Dolan's Matthias & Maxime is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting on August 28, 2020.

Matthias & Maxime

In 2012, Xavier Dolan made a statement. Anointed as the enfant prodige of the international festival circuit, recipient of reams of applauding critiques, the Canadian child actor-turned-director (and scriptwriter, producer, editor, costume designer) yet again mesmerized the French Riviera. His Lawrence Anyway, a bittersweet story of unforeseen impermanent love in the face of Lawrence’s quest for self-expression, won Suzanne Clément the Un Certain Regard award for Best Actress and the surprisingly controversial Queer Palm that Dolan refused to accept. In distancing himself from a prize that, in his view, marginalizes and ghettoizes films merely on the basis of their characters’ sexual orientation, Dolan preached a utopian reality, a post-labels dream of unbiased and egalitarian judgement. However, as this may be perceived as a privileged position that fails to acknowledge the past fights to make LGBTQ+ film visible on international stages, it also exemplifies the director’s vision.

The films of Xavier Dolan aren’t gay films. If anything, they are films featuring gay characters that teem with their pain, desire, and conflicts. Reflecting, where appropriate, the personal experiences of the filmmaker, such films may risk easy categorizations, especially in a world where heterosexuality is the norm. Blunt remarks aside, Dolan advocates for the universality of his subject matters, which is reiterated in the multiplicity of themes he has touched upon in his filmography so far. His latest film, Matthias & Maxime, perfectly fits this mold. The spotlight is turned on the titular couple—Matthias (Gabriel D’almeida Freitas), a neat and serious lawyer in a long-term straight relationship, and Maxime, (Xavier Dolan) a damaged young man about to leave for Australia to flee from the asphyxiating rapport with her mentally ill mother—who are inveigled to star in an experimental student film in which they have to kiss. In the background, sexualities demand to be questioned, generations clash and family relationships are as tense as ever.

The archetypal film exploring a tempestuous relationship between a confrontational gay teenager, Hubert (Xavier Dolan), and his single mother is Dolan’s directorial debut I Killed My Mother (2009), which weaves autobiographical references with a layered and unsparing class critique. In that film, Hubert’s class anxiety permeates the narrative and originates in his mother’s appearance. Not only is her home decor tacky, but the way she dresses manifestly announces her “bad taste,” a lack of refinement that is further accentuated by her behavior and her use of a lower and vulgar register of joual (a non-standard form of Canadian French influenced by English vocabulary and grammar). In Matthias & Maxime, the clothes of Max’s mother, Manon (Anne Dorval), and the interior decor of her detached house in Montreal’s suburbs are similarly symptomatic of such a representation of problematic lower-middle-class families. Afflicted by a non-specified mental illness and addicted to tobacco and alcohol, Manon, whose custody is shouldered by Max, lives apathetically in her shabby loungewear, ranting about the money her son allegedly stole from her. Their interactions painfully jump from awkward attempts at civilized conversations to verbally abusive and occasionally violent fights. Higher up on the social ladder sits Matt’s family, whose straightforward relationship with his mother, Francine (Micheline Bernard), is ably sketched over a few scenes. Bubbly and warm, Francine easily mingles with the rich and cultured Rivettes (the upper-class family of one of Matt and Max’s friends), yet she never displays class snobbery. Instead, Francine is often attentive to Max’s emotional wellbeing and, whenever she can, she tries to mend her son’s shortcomings. In this way, Francine resembles Hélène (Patricia Tulasne), the elegant mother of Hubert’s boyfriend in J’ai tué ma mère, but the welcoming, country interiors of Francine’s wealthy bourgeois home make her a much less intimidating mother figure.

Mother-son relationships are at the core of most of Dolan’s stories. In his films, the Québécois director rewrites the ubiquitous and foundational patriarchal frame of much of Québec post-revolutionary and post-referendary cinema, notes Fulvia Massimi in her chapter “The Transgressive Cinema of Xavier Dolan” in ReFocus: The Cinema of Xavier Dolan (2019). Although paternal figures are erased from Dolan’s titles, male, non-homosexual characters occasionally find their way in and offer fascinating case studies. In Matthias & Maxime, this is the case with the bro-ey lawyer Kevin McAfee (Harris Dickinson) from Toronto, who invades the scene vibing on Pet Shop Boy’s “Always on My Mind” before shoulder-barging a disoriented Matt waiting for him at the airport. Cocky and smutty, McAfee’s affected words and actions are perfectly rehearsed to give an impression of successful, hyper-masculine heterosexuality, which Massimi sees as a characteristic of the anglophone population of Canada. In a wider discussion on the tropes of gender representation, she also places the more feminine and homosexualized Québécois at the opposite end. Yet, most transgressive is the utter opacity of McAfee’s character. Beyond the mask of his protruding cis-het masculinity, there seems to be hiding a latent homoerotic tension that is hinted at in a later scene at a nightclub—which tellingly takes place after Matt and Max’s climactic kiss scene. That same performative heterosexuality, both expected and encouraged in the competitive legal industry, is consequently tinged with toxicity. And it’s the sole culprit in hampering Matt’s sexual desire towards Max, whose seeds were already budding in his childhood years, as it is suggested near the end of the film by a tender drawing portraying the two living together in their future farm.

Stylistically, Matthias & Maxime hardly indulges in the mannerisms that equally garnered the director praise and biting critiques over the years. Dolan’s signature hyperbolic aestheticization—examples are Nicolas showered in marshmallows in Les Amours Imaginaires that is then visually mirrored in Lawrence Anyway’s iconic scene where colorful clothes rain from the sky—together with his pop-inflected editing are rather sparse. Instead, the director favors the intimate dialogue between his characters and the camera. Faces are framed in enveloping close-ups while a rare, tormented, melancholic wide shot of Matthias fleeting his friend’s party after an exaggerated argument is beautified by the shot’s composition. Standing in the middle of a road at night, a gentle breeze gushing towards him, the camera tentatively zooms on him. Matthias is shattered; his tumultuous feelings have erupted in the worst way possible. He looks at the starry night—sighs—glances back. This is the furthest we go. As Matthias locks his emotions up, the camera, accordingly, recedes. There can’t be any empathy without genuine introspection.

Reverberating with abated urgency, which doesn’t translate in a weakened plot, Matthias & Maxime exudes renewed maturity. The film’s visual style salutes Dolan’s past films, incorporating exceptionally kinetic camera movements while the aspect ratio of the film fluctuates twice. Right at the beginning, excerpts from the 8 mm student film usher Matt and Max into the Rivettes’ lake villa, where they learn that the host’s sister—the filmmaker—will be there too. Later on, a sly light trick cues the screen to letterbox from a common American widescreen 1.85:1 to an anamorphic 2.35:1 in conjunction with the film’s emotional peak—a visual flourish similar to the one deployed in Tom at the Farm (2013). Lacking the overt confrontational bite of most of his previous films, Matthias & Maxime is geared towards addressing the never-ending growing pains of a bunch of friends in their late 20s. The most accessible and enjoyable of Dolan’s films, this is a quintessential millennial testament. By wearing its heart on its sleeves, this tender tale of longing seduces because it feels excruciatingly honest. 

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