By Jason Anderson

amours imaginairesThough Justin Bieber beats out all other contenders when it comes to starting riots at shopping malls, Canada has developed a surprising new forte for producing well-coiffed young media sensations who seem to travel everywhere accompanied by adoring crowds. Alas, the Canadian reporters who eagerly disseminated the news of the lusty response to Xavier Dolan’s second feature at Cannes failed to coin a handy term like “Bieber fever” to describe the effect that Dolan and his work have on audiences, especially at a festival where the 21-year-old Montréaler has scooped up four prizes in two years and attracts a level of attention usually reserved for pop stars.

Even Atom Egoyan—the last Canadian filmmaker to break in such a big way on the international fest circuit—seemed awestruck as he described watching the sight (albeit in a video clip) of the standing ovation for Les amours imaginaires a few days later in a panel discussion with Dolan and Noah Pink, a fellow Canadian young’un whose 45-minute ZedCrew inexplicably slipped into this year’s Quinzaine. The sight of Egoyan onstage with the mop-topped upstart at the Canada Pavillion could have passed for the ceremonial passing of the flame between one of the nation’s most seasoned Cannes vets and a talent in swift ascent. That said, the torch in question was much dimmer than the one Egoyan brandished when The Adjuster (1991) and Exotica (1994) were the toast of the town. Likewise, quite what’s being celebrated besides Dolan’s freshly minted celebrity status is unclear.

When I interviewed Dolan last summer after his success in the Fortnight with J’ai tué ma mère, the matter of his age inevitably arose. He noted that his then-teenage-hood—he was 17 when he wrote his debut feature and 19 when he directed and starred in it—was an obstacle in the eyes of others at every step of the film’s financing, creation, and dissemination until it came time for promotion, at which point this former liability became an irresistible story hook.

Over the course of the last year, his point has been proven over and over. Young, cute, and gay, Dolan has been portrayed (including by me) as unusually, even heroically ambitious for skipping the standard newbie filmmaker route (going to school, making shorts, waiting tables, attending Sundance labs) to go straight to making a feature. And he did it largely on his own dime, financing J’ai tué ma mère with earnings from his career as a child actor. (He grew up in front of French Canadian viewers as a pint-sized player in ads for Québecois pharmacy chain Jean Coutu and dies an early death in Pascal Laugier’s steely horror pic Martyrs [2008].)

It’s strongly tempting to consider both Dolan’s onscreen persona in his first film—a selfish, abrasive brat who seems unwilling to concede the idea that anyone else might have an emotion, too—and his offscreen do-it-all-myself industriousness as evidence of the unabashed narcissism that’s considered a hallmark of his generation by aging hipsters like me. But given the fact there are far easier ways to glorify one’s self these days, Dolan’s endeavours are more old school than digital age. He also endeared himself to his worried elders by paying fealty to the fading gods of art cinema, bucking the idea that members of his demographic were categorically unable to watch any movie older than Rushmore (1998). Especially surprising and heartening among Canucks was his eagerness to cite the influence of Gilles Carle, Claude Jutra, Denys Arcand, and Québec’s other mainstays of the Fortnight in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

This time around, with a new berth in Un Certain Regard ensuring wider exposure with critics unwilling to stray too far from the Palais, Dolan was perfectly poised to gain more ground. And so he did: Les amours imaginaires—starring Dolan as Francis, a young man who battles his best gal pal Marie (Monia Chokri) for the affections of a curly-haired Adonis named Nicolas (Niels Schneider)—attracted mostly positive notices in the trades, a very eager French press, and unusually enthusiastic Debussy audiences. More important than the second Prix de la Jeunesse he picked up from a jury of under-25s was the US distribution deal he scored with IFC, who is already setting up Dolan as the next Christophe Honoré.

The only hitch is that for all of its crowd-pleasing potential and critical acclaim, Les amours imaginaires is a far less compelling film than its predecessor. Dolan’s new indie romance substitutes angst, whimsy, and flash for the insight, aggression, and rude energy of J’ai tué ma mère. Though intermittently engaging, the contents seem both overcooked and undernourishing. The rampant borrowings from JLG (the passionless sex-scene tableaux and colour palette are trés Pierrot le fou [1965]) and WKW (the hips-and-heads-moving-in-slo-mo motif from In the Mood for Love is repeated ad infinitum and then some) are too abundant to easily forgive, even in a movie dominated by characters who emulate movie icons (Audrey Hepburn for Marie, James Dean for Francis) in order to woo the one they want.

More disappointing is how Les amours imaginaires completely fails to cohere as a study of twenty-something mating rituals, an especially intriguing topic in an age when nearly everything remains undeclared. Both the lively group dinner scene that opens the film and the interstitial mock-doc bits of other young people sharing break-up stories suggest that we’ll get a wider view of the characters’ Montréal milieu. But instead, the film’s scope is frustratingly narrow, and the claustrophobic feel that was a boon for the portrayal of parent-child warfare in J’ai tué ma mère instead makes Les amours imaginaires seem unnecessarily removed from the real. Too often, the characters seem to exist without social lives or social histories.

Then again, just because what happens here takes place in a vacuum doesn’t mean that it’s all vacuous. The punchiest passages of Dolan’s script have plenty of wit and a considerable amount of bite, especially as the suitors’ attitudes darken from infatuation and lust to frustration and rage at their would-be beloved. Dolan also displays a precocious forte for not just writing female roles but allowing them to upstage his own screen alter egos. Just as Dolan the actor ceded plenty of space to Anne Dorval in J’ai tué ma mère, here he gives many of the best moments to Monia Chokri, who’s whip-smart as Marie. Too bad Niels Schneider can’t give greater texture to his role, though Dolan does have something sly to say about Nicolas and what point he may occupy on some newly revised version of the Kinsey scale mentioned elsewhere in the film—that is to say, the ambiguous orientation of this fetching creature ultimately has less to do with any sexual desire he may possess than a need to maintain the highest possible number of admirers from the available pool. Meanwhile, the tally of Dolan’s admirers will no doubt continue to swell. Already among their numbers is Louis Garrel, who appears in a fleeting cameo in Les amours imaginaires, and is set to star as a transsexual in Lawrence Anyways, Dolan’s third film and first to be French-financed. By this time next year, maybe the mayor of Cannes will have named a street in his honour.

Tagged with →  

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →

  • Exploded View: Steina & Woody Vasulka

    Icelandic filmmaker Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir’s extraordinarily warming 2019 documentary The Vasulka Effect, about the protean Euro-hippies and rightfully dubbed “grandparents of video art,” Steina and Woody Vasulka, was exactly the movie I needed to see this winter. Awash in Nordic echoes even as it confronts the modern realities of art-gallery politics and the history of America’s visual-arts fringes, it’s a mythical origin story that’s actually true, all about ancient heroes and ravaging time. More →

  • Canadiana | Reading Aids: The Good Woman of Sichuan and Ste. Anne

    When navigating the as-yet-unknown films of a festival program, nationality still provides a persuasive point of reference for some, a feeling underlined by the proud declarations issued by national funding organizations, promotional bodies, or particularly partisan members of the press once titles have been announced. This year’s reduced Berlinale Forum lineup also invites tenuous lines of this kind to be drawn (two films from Argentina, two films from Canada!), although the three Franco-German co-productions shot elsewhere say far more about how films are made in 2021. More →