Has Herr Dolan Really Run Amok?

Once widely acclaimed, the Québécois enfant terrible is now dividing critics and fans. Can one find a fresh point of entry to Dolan's films?
Thomas Quist
Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats (2010) is showing November 10 – December 9, 2018 on MUBI in the United States.Tom at the Farm
Xavier Dolan is infatuated with image. The Louis Vuitton model makes films of meticulous composition, color, and sartorial specificity. The filmmaker’s life, as he completes a decade of making films, is well known: a wunderkind-cum-enfant terrible, Dolan made his first film at nineteen. The film, I Killed My Mother (2009), played at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, where he’s become a house cat amongst toms, racking up prestigious awards (Queer Palm for Laurence Anyways, official competition Jury Prize for Mommy and Grand Prix for It’s Only the End of the World) and adulation while arrayed in the finest of fashion—the man has style. Somewhere along his ascent the critical discourse began to curdle. Flaws and weaknesses (excessive fealty to Wong Kar-wai and overly-simplistic character dynamics) in his first few films were absolved under the auspices of youthful promise. Critics and viewers were excited to discover a new cine-stylist, but around the time of Mommy (2014) the pools of disfavor began to form. Qualities that expressed youthful vigor now seemed juvenile, and his films’ bacchanalian sprawl tended towards untidiness. When he presented It’s Only the End of the World (2016) at Cannes the pools of disapproval joined the tide. The critical reaction was harsh and Dolan reacted in kind, questioning if he even wanted to continue directing.  
Since then he has directed a new film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018), with another in the hopper. In total, Dolan has helmed seven films before the age of 30 and, if we are blessed with another half-century on this planet, he is poised to become one of the most prolific living directors. The prospect of 20 more films by Dolan no doubt gives many critics shivers, but perhaps, just perhaps, his films are being overlooked. The swiftness with which Dolan has become a critical duff is alarming. That the Québécois director makes dramatic films—an increasingly fallow genre in North America—with a singularity of vision and style should be enough to warrant further study. Besides, there has to be some reason for his legions of online fans who stalk his every career move like BeyHivers. What accounts for the gap between his devotees and disapproving critics? Moreover, wouldn’t it behoove any critic or viewer, faced with decades more of Dolan’s work, to find a fresh point of entry?  
The model of critical reassessment in our young medium’s history is that of Douglas Sirk. He is mostly remembered for his 1950s melodramas, which were financially successful but regarded as “women’s pictures” by the critical rearguard, who at the time thought his films silly, overly-dramatic, and excessively stylistic (to see a critic make no engagement with the text, read Bosley Crowther’s 1957 review of Written on the Wind). Despite high praise from Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s and Andrew Sarris in the late 1960s, critics and academics largely amended Sirk’s English-language reputation in the 1970s. The dialectic of surface and depth, the put-on veneer of public life, and aesthetic distance were new conceptual inroads for Sirk’s films. The artifice and aestheticism was now seen as indicative of deeper artistic ambition. Fred Camper wrote in 1971 that “Sirk’s films are about their own style.” The same could be said of Dolan’s. One of his finest traits as a writer-director is creating characters who self-aestheticize. A large majority of Dolan’s much-ballyhooed penchant for melodrama comes from the friction created when a character’s idealized, projected self is at odds with their primordial nature. Take Heartbeats (2010), Dolan’s second film, which concerns itself with the minor contretemps of sexually active, Québécois bohemians. A love triangle develops between two best friends (played by Dolan and Monia Chokri) and handsome local lug Nicolas (Neils Schneider). What is interesting about the film, in a Sirkian way, is how the characters mediate emotional connection through objects. In pursuit of Nicolas the two friends sublimate their personalities and desires into clothing and gifts. A similar form of self-aestheticizing occurs in I Killed My Mother and Mommy, which show striving working-classers dressing in ways they think will belie their socio-economic status. Unfortunately, much more goes into a film. Dolan has a weakness for filling interstitial moments with shoehorned gimmicks. It is hard to say what the sixth slow-motion montage in Heartbeats conveys that isn’t expressed in the previous five. Amidst the wonky style, however, Dolan creates some beautiful insert shots and compositions, but the harmony of people, objects, and space never occurs as it does in Sirk’s films.
In order to continue the comparison, it is important to note how much of Sirk’s renaissance stemmed from his being able to talk intelligently about his own films. In 1972, Sirk on Sirk, a book of interviews with Jon Halliday, was published. Sirk spoke eloquently about his artistic ambitions, aesthetic techniques, and thematic concerns. Dolan, to date, has never spoken with the same incisiveness. In point of fact, he has all but buried his influences in recent years in favor of the type of populist works that played in the home of any #90skid. In 2010, he said of Godard’s Pierrot le fou, “The ultimate freedom. Freedom of words, freedom of images, freedom of colors, and freedom of love. This is Godard at the acme of his art, the apex of his craft.” But, a mere five years later, after splitting the Cannes Jury Prize with Mr. Godard, Dolan told a reporter, “I’ve seen maybe two Godard films and I really didn’t like them.” The danger here, if one is trying to wring his work for new meaning, is to conflate Dolan’s middlebrow citations with his own work, which, much like Sirk’s films, plainly don’t fit the definition of middlebrow.
There is a long history of artists who struggle to talk about their art; not everyone can reach the lucidity of a Lucrecia Martel Q&A. One is reminded of a review written by the late John Ashbery, whose work as a critic is undervalued. In reviewing a show for New York journal in 1972 on the Abstract Expressionists, Ashbery wrote, “The sudden success that befell the Abstract Expressionists painters is one reason why their work went out of fashion so abruptly. Almost overnight, it now seems, they were swept from obscurity and poverty to riches and international fame. They were overexposed. Their heads were turned. They pontificated. And in most cases, one had to ignore their statements about their art if one wanted to go on loving it.” Perchance, herein lies a useful quote in regards to Dolan.
If the “Douglas Sirk Model of Artistic Reevaluation” fits too snugly for Dolan’s career, perhaps sizing up to the Abstract Expressionist model is required. As nebulous and grandiloquent as it sounds, Dolan’s work shares some timber with the midcentury American art movement. The obvious comparison is a love of splashy, colorful compositions that articulate a sort of nonfigurative connection between things. Dolan’s films often feature narrative ritornellos that suture characters’ immaterial emotions to the material surroundings, like the clothes rainstorm in Laurence Anyways (2012). An additional parallel comes from another Ashbery observation. In an interview, Ashbery discussed Abstract Expressionism saying that, “the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an anti-referential sensuousness.” Perhaps this notion accounts for Dolan’s scores of fans. Dolan’s obfuscation of his rarefied influences allows for uninitiated viewers to feel an unbroken closeness with the films. It is an act of de-distancing. It could also account for why his two films based on plays (2013’s Tom at the Farm and It’s Only the End of the World), which are in constant reference with the source material, landed with such thuds. And while his first three films contained stylistic quotations and literary allusions aplenty, a film like Mommy (clearly the most beloved of his works) is nearly devoid of references, allowing viewers to mainline the emotional paroxysms directly.  
The prevailing knock on Dolan has been a lack of coherent depth, all style and no substance—a world of surfaces. Passionate emotion, which is his main export, is thematically inextricable with depth. But how much of love is on the surface? In Dolan’s films most love is just unyielding lust and the non-filial connections are as translucent as chiffon. The depth is impermanent. Abstraction takes place on the surface of things, in clothes, in objects, in emotions. In a world increasingly concerned with surfaces, perhaps he has found a back way into depth?  
So as you enter into a theater to watch Dolan’s subsequent films forgive some of his faults (indulgent formal tics and a furtive conservative streak) and bask in the sensuousness of tangible things: the colors, the outfits, hairstyles, and objects. Part of the job of a viewer is to find common ground with the artist, which in this case, might be right there on top. Henceforth, maybe we should look forward to his next films in their abstract expressionist splendor. Xavier Dolan, king of color, suzerain of surfaces and purveyor of the moving image in two-dimensions:
Left: Excalibur #2 (1963), Adolph Gottlieb. Right: Laurence Anyways
Left: Onement 1 (1948), Barnett Newman. Right: It’s Only the End of the World.
Left: Abstraction (1960), Albert Kotin. Right: Mommy.

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