If you plan to see J’ai tue’ ma mere with the hopes of seeing a film about matricide, you will be disappointed. The protagonist does not kill his mother, physically at least. But Xavier Dolan’s directorial debut, J’ai tue’ ma mere, has won international attention and for plenty of reasons. The plot may not be the most original—a teenage boy has a strained relationship with his mother—but the powerful performances of Dolan and Anne Dorval, combined with the intensely colorful and artistic images interspersed throughout the film linger in the mind long after the film has ended.
Dolan not only writes and directs the film but also stars as Hubert Minel, a sixteen-year-old high school student with a gift for writing and art. Hubert lives with his single-mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), and the two seem to search for ways to frustrate the other. But above it all is the question of love: what does it mean to have the love of a mother or son? Is it possible for someone not to be meant to be a mother? The poor relationship between Hubert and Chantale is juxtaposed with the mother-son relationship of Antonin (Hubert’s boyfriend, played by Francois Arnaud) and Helene (Patricia Tulasne), who are more like best friends.
The relationship between Chantale and Hubert becomes even more strained when Chantale accidentally learns of her son’s homosexuality from Helene. What troubles Chantale is not that her son is gay, but that he did not or could not tell her. Rather than confront Hubert, she decides to keep this information to herself until her son is ready to discuss it. But the relationship continues to suffer. Neither Chantale nor Hubert seems to know what to do or say as gestures of love and friendship disintegrate into screaming matches. Finding herself at a parental dead end, Chantale and her ex-husband decide to enroll Hubert in boarding school. The farewell scene between Chantale and Hubert as he departs for boarding school is the most moving of the film. Angry with his mother, Hubert forbids Chantale to accompany him to the bus. He cruelly asks, “What would you do if I died today?” and leaves his mother alone in the parking lot. To herself, with tears in her eyes, she replies, “I’d die tomorrow.” At this moment, if you are not already crying, you are heart-broken for Chantale. As we are caught up in Hubert’s struggle (the film is mostly from his perspective), this glimpse of Chantale’s unconditional love shifts our sympathy. In fact, for the remainder of the film, I was constantly flip-flopping between sympathizing with Hubert and defending Chantale.
The conclusion of the film is hopeful, but ambiguous. But after ninety minutes of watching a mother and son struggle with communication, it is hard to imagine the film ending neatly, with a concrete solution to years of frustration.
As previously stated, Dolan’s autobiographical film is not exactly the first of its kind. However, the writer/director/actor is keenly aware of this, even inserting images of James Dean, Hubert’s obvious Rebel Without a Cause idol. The placement of artwork throughout the film is meticulous and depicts the characters’ relationships far better than Hubert’s ever so emo videotapes. Ultimately, the strongest feature of the film is the acting. Anne Dorval gives a solid performance that could move the most angst-ridden teen to tears, and Dolan of course does an admirable job of basically playing himself. But what is most amazing is that Dolan accomplished such an impressive and moving film at the age of 20. I can only imagine what this Canadian filmmaker has up his sleeve for the future.
Directed by Xavier Dolan; written by Xavier Dolan; director of photography, Stephanie Anne Weber Biron; edited by Helene Girard; original music by Nicholas Savard-L’Herbier; produced by Xavier Dolan, Carole Mondello, and Daniel Morin; released by Regent Releasing. Running time: 96 minutes.
With: Xavier Dolan (Hubert), Anne Dorval (Chantale), Francois Arnaud (Antonin), Suzanne Clement (Julie), and Patricia Tulasne (Helene).