Whether or not he raises high the Palme d'Or in victory on Saturday night, Quebec's Xavier Dolan has triumphed at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, where Mommy, his vibrant hot-house drama about a mother and her hyperactive teenaged son, has been the big-buzz film late in the competition. Though, at 25, Dolan's not the youngest director in the history of the Cannes competition (that would be 18-year-old Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf), the fashionable, brash Dolan, who has married his love of Hollywood dramas and music video to his personal obsessions, has confirmed his status as cinema's heir apparent.
The international press gave him a long ovation on Thursday afternoon as he entered the press room, along with his cast (Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément, Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and producer Nancy Grant. The tone of the questions was both respectful and incredulous, both at Dolan's versatility (director, actor, writer, producer – even costume designer) and his productivity, with five feature films under his belt in as many years. The former Quebec child star, known to be touchy when things aren't going well and gracious when they are, was in expansive form, switching between English and French in his answers.
The director's international breakthrough was 2009's I Killed My Mother, which took three prizes at the Cannes sidebar, Director Fortnight, and his new film has obvious parallels: Another drama about a tempestuous mother-son relationship. How autobiographical are these two stories?
"My first film was autobiographical," Dolan said.
"I grew up in a single-parent home and I saw my mother fighting for certain things and abdicating on others, and I wanted, through the cinema, to take revenge in a sense. That's what you do in film, to win and enable what life doesn't allow, and that's why it's such a wonderful job." Mommy, he says, is "not about me, and nothing like my mother … I don't know why I'm fascinated with the mother figure in society, or with women in general. I respect my own father, but I don't respect father figures as much."
Where does he find the energy to maintain the pace at which he works?
"It's my passion. It's not a duty … I don't set out to work at a frantic pace, that's not what counts. I want to tell a tale. I want to describe it well and do my utmost. I draw on my friends and people I love and admire and the people we have here today, and we create freely and that's what I want to do. I never know how much lifetime we have on earth. I know I'm young but I'd like to do this right here and now."
He added: "There may be a proper age to know how to tell stories but there's not a proper age to start storytelling. I feel neither old nor young. I feel I want to do the right things to tell a story that haunts me somehow."
As Dolan reminded the audience, in spite of his age, he has had a lot of experience on film sets, working in the business since he was four years old. He has also watched a lot of movies in his life, "though perhaps not the kind of movies you would watch."
He cited James Cameron's Titanic, which he saw when he was eight. It was the first time he became aware of, "the thinking behind the film, the moment when things should happen, when the music should happen, why the costumes mattered. It gave me courage to try ambitious ideas … I am afraid of falling on those red steps [on the Palais du Festival's red carpet] or of stuttering, but I have no fear of telling a story and creating it with people who inspire me."
The idea for Mommy, he says, was a newspaper story he read in his teens, before writing I Killled My Mother, about a mother who had her seven-year-old son put into an institution because she was afraid of his violence. Originally, he planned to make it when he was older, planning it as his English-language, American movie debut, but increasingly, he felt it belonged to the suburban Montreal neighbourhood where he grew up, and the kind of mothers he knew there, and the way they spoke and dressed.
"Over the last five years, I've developed wonderful relationships with actors and other creators with whom I feel very much at home and it was wonderful to shoot in my own neighbourhood. It gives me great strength. " (So specific are the working-class Quebec accents and salty obscenities used in the film that, at screenings of the film at Cannes, there have been two sets of subtitles – in English and in standard French.)
When a Canadian journalist asked if Dolan won a Palme d'Or, would he consider it a victory for Quebec or for Canada? Dolan laughed at the loaded question.
"Well played," he said before, after a lengthy pause, answering: "Should we win anything at all, I'm from Quebec and Quebec is in Canada as a matter of fact we know for sure. Whatever my political views are, I feel my movie is very Quebecois… For me, it's not about a country or a province, which [are concepts] my generation don't relate to. It would be an extraordinary message for people of my generation, which I think is filled with a message of hope. But I'd rather brace for nothing and worry about getting up that damned carpet tonight."
After Cannes, win or lose, there's already casting for his English-language debut, co-created with fellow Montreal director Jacob Tierney, entitled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, though in the fall, he's giving himself a break. Dolan, who has a high-school diploma but never attended university, plans to pick up some art history courses at McGill.
"I'm going back to school in the fall and have a little bit more normal life, hanging out with people my own age, hopefully kissing them a little."