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I Killed My Mother

Kino // Unrated // August 13, 2013
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Christopher McQuain | posted August 19, 2013 | E-mail the Author

There's a scene in Xavier Dolan's (Heartbeats) 2009 debut feature, I Killed My Mother, in which high-school senior Hubert Minel (played by Dolan himself) and his boyfriend, Antonin Rimbaud (François Arnaud) arrive at an ad-agency office to do the Jackson-Pollock paint job requested by Antonin's exceptionally cool mother. It's a super-cool scene, too, all fancily edited to a raging alt-rock tune with quick cuts and jump-cutting paint drips and a sexy lovemaking break sped up like A Clockwork Orange. It also has no discernible other point than to demonstrate the filmmaker's own hipness and technical proficiency, and it's exemplary of the terminal problem from which the film suffers: Despite the apparently autobiographically-impassioned well from which springs the very particular yet recognizable story of a near-grown son and his hardworking, cheerfully middlebrow-bourgeois mother (the very good Anne Dorval), the film's roots in real, problematic, complex emotions and its intermittent, brilliant flashes of aesthetic and narrative insight are all but drowned out by a grating, adolescent shortsightedness that becomes, at times, downright embarrassing. A great many of us probably fantasized at the time about making vindictive acts of fiction that would reveal the unfairness of our youth to the world, but how many of us would want our fully normal, typical teenage screeds, tirades, and actings-out dramatized, in all painful sincerity, for posterity, as if to be taken as the very height of urgency and seriousness?

It's not his subject matter itself, but his lack of perspective, that makes this intermittently inspired and engaging film ultimately hard to take, if not flatly, unexceptionably bad: There's no way to say this without sounding condescending or patronizing vis-à-vis Dolan's extraordinarily young age, but this Quebecois auteur, who at this point has three features under his belt at the age of 24 and made I Killed My Mother at the (too) tender age of 20, is, it sincerely pains me to say (I was a hotheaded 20-year-old with artistic leanings and a mother once, too, you know), much too close to the material to do it justice. The ecstatic pull-quote on the back of the DVD compares the film to Catcher in the Rye, and that applies well enough to its bittersweet/mostly-bitter coming-of-age theme, but does anyone think that if Holden Caulfield himself, and not Salinger, had written that novel, it would've let us see and feel nearly all that it does? Dolan is, evidently (and, again, quite understandably given his age) helpless not to approach his hefty, genuine, and/or universal dramatic ingredients (parent-child relationships, young love, the mixed blessing of a good education, being a gay teen in a strange time of good but incremental, only haltingly advancing enlightenment) in a way that is, for lack of a better word, childish. Hubert's plight -- disenchantment and boredom with school, parents whose ragtag attempts to do what's best for him feel misguided and oppressive, a world that seems generally committed to mediocrity and denial -- is full of potential for empathetic depiction of those unforgettable, stifled teenage feelings, which are not innately trivial. But Dolan doesn't demonstrate, onscreen where it counts, enough understanding of those emotions not to inadvertently trivialize them, to reduce them, make them appear smaller from the outside even as they eat the protagonist alive. (And speaking of trivialization, the less said of Dolan's noble but misguided, perfunctory attempt to shoehorn the reality of bullying/violence in the lives of LGBT youth into his already-challenged juggling of events, the better.)

So, the film begins on a petty note -- a slo-mo close-up, from the disgusted Hubert's POV, of his mother's overly-painted lips smeared with cream cheese as she messily eats a bagel -- and does not often enough rise above pettiness to earn its faintly ludicrous aura of gravity (pettiness and self-seriousness being the cruel twin stars that often guide the teenager's intense, uncomfortable, unasked-for state of being). The details on which Dolan chooses to dwell in order to demonstrate powerful, maybe even shocking maternal-filial tension are mostly the stuff of endless, pointless little squabbles too relished to allow accumulation into anything much bigger than that -- the sort of picking, escalating spats that are "real" enough, sure, but more suitable to Curb Your Enthusiasm-like comedy than earnest, searing, wisdom-emanating drama. Maybe the film is supposed to be a comedy, but I don't think so; I certainly never got the sense that Dolan would much appreciate the fact that Hubert's end-of-his-rope tantrums -- over being denied emancipation, over being sent off to boarding school, over virtually anything his embarrassing, uncool mother, so very unlike Antonin's creative ad-exec mom, does or says -- resemble nothing so much as the acts of impotent rage (mostly consisting of throwing snack foods like Jolly Ranchers and Cheetos at the source of said rage, which actually happens in this movie) hilariously indulged in by overgrown "teen" Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) on the great cult TV comedy Strangers with Candy.

There's no denying Dolan's extensive visual vocabulary, and when it works -- as in his lovely use of cut-ins of tiny details by way of introducing/setting scenes, or his striking and effective way of cutting between characters in conversation not in the typical over-the-shoulder shots but by alternating between unusually composed, decentered frontal views of the speakers -- it feels prodigious, very sophisticated and fluent. But then the director brings us back to the reality of his demonstrable but rather undeveloped talent with exercises like the aforementioned impromptu-music-video office-painting scene; the film virtually suffocates on hollow, indiscriminately deployed tricks like slo-mo , hamfisted symbolism, gaudy dream/fantasy sequences, and an insufferable black-and-white video diary conceit exuding much more unearned self-importance than relevance or revelation. But if it derails itself with too much that is as slick, disposable, and empty as a TV commercial, I Killed My Mother also contains glimmers of a still-gestating dramatic insight and aesthetic discipline -- the too-thin but present-and-accounted-for attempts, mainly through a fairly well-executed subplot involving a teacher/mentor of Hubert's (Suzanne Clément) and her wisdom, at seeing the kid's narcissism and his mother's vulnerability more clearly; Dolan's sometimes inspired, apt, compelling compositional sensibility and ability to pace and structure well when he so chooses -- that may yet lead to something fully formed and substantial. But it's more of a wobbly, not-very-successful experiment by a filmmaker who has yet to find a voice (let alone mastery) than anything like a truly good film. The affection you feel for it in spite of yourself has more to do with the actually very young source of its youthful mistakes than its sporadic achievements; the film may vacillate crazily between emotional incisiveness and pubescent myopia, but it's actually true, not just a figurative criticism, that Dolan and his nevertheless intriguing talent still have a lot of growing up to do.



This transfer of I Killed My Mother, presenting the film in anamorphic widescreen at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, is very good. All of the colors and contrasts are vivid and sharp, the darks solid, and the skin tones natural, with very few instances of edge enhancement/haloing and no compression artifacts such as aliasing to mar the experience. For the most part, a healthy degree of celluloid-like texture remains to the picture quality, indicating some conscientious caution in the use of digital clean-up for home media.


The DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track (in French with non-optional English subtitles) offers up the film's sound track in full clarity, depth, and range, with an immediate solidity and heft to the dialogue and an expansiveness to the ambient noise (especially of exterior scenes) and music. No distortion, imbalance, or muffling are present at any point.


Just the film's U.S. theatrical trailer and a couple of other previews for Kino Lorber releases.


I Killed My Mother is a coming-of-age drama made, half-impressively and half-disastrously, by a filmmaker who had himself not yet come of age -- the Quebecois enfant-terrible writer-director Xavier Dolan, who wrote and directed it at the age of 20. This means that its story of a high-school senior (Dolan) experiencing, due to several factors -- his open-secret gayness, the lingering complex emotions from his parents' divorce, his own adolescent self-involvement, and his mother's actual wide, stubborn streaks of annoying middle-brow middle-agedness -- an especially tempestuous cutting of the apron strings has all the infectious energy and blunt, shrill beginner's philosophizing and self-righteousness of a teenager, an overeagerness to prove itself (its smartness and coolness) vying with surprisingly real, affecting emotions and insights such that it holds your interest even when you find yourself rolling your eyes. The eye-roll factor overwhelms this overstuffed, needlessly hyper hodgepodge of a film long before it finally calms down and develops some tonal control for its should-have-been moving conclusion, but some of the too-many narrative and stylistic touches the talented and proficient Dolan throws at the wall do stick. Not enough to rescue the film from succumbing to its overdose of dramatic and aesthetic nonsense, unfortunately, but enough to Rent It and witness the chaotic birth of a filmmaker who could yet -- it's too early to tell from the writhing, half-formed, larval contours of I Killed My Mother -- channel his overabundance of energy and ideas into endeavors better developed and more complete.

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