The Smoke Hides the Shit: Stray Thoughts and Observations About Xavier Dolan and His Time at Cannes

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Some notes on Xavier Dolan. 

  1. I asked a couple of friends relatively recently about how they felt regarding the assignation of the title of wunderkind. Both of whom are journalists and replied with a certain amount of ambivalence. They leveled that at once it was obnoxious because it seemed to be used as a qualifier and as a bar from which you could inadvertently fall, and as something they were proud enough of to ignore. Something like, the best revenge is being successful. These folks are of the utmost professional types, and their personality is imbued in their work, in a good, uncontroversial way.
  2. With a Jury Prize and a (newly awarded) Grand Prize at Cannes, and almost all of his films having premiered at the festival, Xavier Dolan has little to complain about. It’s a little curious, then, to have seen him react to the mostly poor reviews to his new film It’s Only the End of the World (which I have not seen, as I am not at the festival) in the way that he did. He reads a bunch of bad ones, like some vilified child. Talking to Nigel Smith at The Guardian, he says, “I’m surprised you didn’t cancel your interview.” His acceptance speech earlier today was drenched in, what many accused him, crocodile tears. In an interview at the Film Society at Lincoln Center with Eugene Hernandez, he complained of the temperature of the room (which was fine) and took off his shirt. He is, as Molly Faust asserts, an actor.
  3. Xavier Dolan as “bratty art house bad boy” and “Québécois wunderkind” are labels that seem to have been both self-imposed/self-constructed and bestowed upon him by the press. Dolan’s films, when they have been praised, garner attention for their youthful ingenuity and raucous sense of waggling low key teen angst. His public performance, which ranges from gracious to deeply insufferable, is like some pent up messily composed aspiration to be like a Queer Wellesian figure. Which is generous. Or his retaliation against being called a wunderkind is World itself, maybe it’s intentionally alienating?
  4. There are few artists I can think of who make it a point that their personality is as much a part of the work as the text itself. As aforementioned, the comparison to Orson Welles is generous, but I don’t think entirely inaccurate. Dolan is the type to self-mythologize, and what we have been seeing are these brash, unpolished stabs at doing so. He hates The Beatles and loves Titanic. He’s capable of being caustic in interviews, or deeply in need of validation. It’s true of his films as well: see the glaring, bougie hipsters of Les Amours Imaginaires for the former and the mentally ill protagonist of Mommy for the latter, or I Killed My Mother for both. There’s seldom a review written today that doesn’t mention his personality or his off screen persona. There are plenty of art house provocateurs to warrant a club, and Dolan seems to belong to the handful of those directors who want their persona to become a part of the text. Yet, while it’s hard to find a piece about Lars von Trier that declines to mention his own Cannes history (which I think is tired and boring), the relationship seems, to me, easier to compartmentalize, at least based on the writing that I’ve seen.
  5. I also saw someone compare Dolan to Kanye West, which, not unlike the comparison to Welles, is generous. There are elements of both characters’ personalities that overlap, almost to imply that if Kanye West is here to reclaim confidence, assertiveness, and genius for male blackness, then Xavier Dolan is here for the queer male side? I don’t know. I think if West received bad reviews for his newest album (which he did), not only would he tell critics to fuck off, it would propel him even deeper into making better work, or work that was a middle finger to those that maligned him. Yet, Dolan seems to have reacted (at least prior to his Cannes win) like a puppy dog (“I know now who I am”, “There seems to have been a great misunderstanding”, “I don’t know if I want to go on directing”, etc.), and however performative it may or may not have been, it is somewhat of a surprise. But, then again, maybe this is an act of, to borrow from Halberstam, the queer art of failure.
  6. I’ve noticed a lot of critics, almost everyone who wrote on It’s Only the End of the World, using the word “shrill” to describe the film. “Shrill” is, based on consensus, a pretty gendered term, usually referring to women. I can’t help but be reflexively bothered that a queer director who utilizes female performers frequently within their work is being called shrill. Unless that word has shrugged off its gendered connotations, I’m very curious about what those implications are.
  7. I’ve gotten over people not liking Xavier Dolan, even hating him. He’s not to all tastes. I like his work, I think he’s genuinely talented, and, yes, his work speaks to me, to utilize an unfortunate cliché. But, at least within the insular world of online film writing, there’s a weird smugness to hating Dolan that is comparable to the director’s own brand of self-satisfaction. (Like, I do not understand the purpose of tweeting at him “eat a dick”.) Conversely, as my best friend Phuong noted, there’s a similar loudness, almost performative presentation for the love of American auteur Michael Mann, coming from the same people. She asserted that it might be a masculinity thing: Mann as the apex of a heteromasculniity that his cinema embodies (and sometimes critiques) and Xavier Dolan as the purveyor of an outsider, or other masculinity that is shunned (even though he deals more often in scales of femininity). They’re polar opposites as filmmakers: even Mann’s action sequences are subtle and reserved, where Dolan’s quietest moments are still decibels louder than most. (I’m a Mann agnostic, for the record.) Or, it may not be a masculinity thing and just a contest of cinephiles whose validation is dependent on certain forms of credibility, something I’m certainly guilty of.
  8. That loudness and smarminess just might transcend director name and maybe ends up being the weird affectation I/we end up playing into regardless. Laurence Barber quipped that the “same cinephiles who shit on the Oscars sure get angry about the Cannes Awards”. It happened in 2014, too. Or maybe it’s a product of the platform, an insidiously mean mentality, or an inability to discern tone.
  9. Then again, everything is at film fests is performative. Like, the booing.
  10. Look, even as a self-described Xavier Dolan stan, I don’t especially care for the persona he’s constructed. For a while, I made it a point not to watch or read interviews with him because he does come off as a wanton child. And I get his films are flawed and his talent is “negligible”. I do have a personal connection with his films, but I would like to think that I’m self-aware enough to recognize an actor. Or, at least someone who may or may not be reconciling with real criticism, as Derek Godin put it. I’ll see his new film, whenever it gets US distribution. I don’t have a personal stake in his filmmaking necessarily (a bunch of people I trust have fallen on both sides of the camp for World), but I’m wondering when his performance off will become as polished the ones he can get on screen.

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