Though 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 .)
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 ) 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.