The off-kilter French-Canadian auteur returns with a resonant if overlong drama that ends just a bit too messily.
This review is published as part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Xavier Dolan is no stranger to using those onscreen as mouthpieces for himself, but these lines don’t always feel specific to his career. Then comes the last quarter of his eighth feature: “You grow old of the jokes and songs,” Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) yearns. It has the expected resonance when in the context of an independent coming-of-age film, but it also gleams a bit more into Dolan’s reverting as a filmmaker.
His latest marks a step back to basics for the 30-year-old French Canadian, someone who would benefit from something simple at this point in his career. That something is Matthias and Maxime. It isn’t too layered; it’s far from show-stopping. Yet despite its simple plot remains an idiosyncratic energy Dolan is intent on keeping, and for most of its two hours, that’s enough to get by.
Dolan plays Maxime, a Quebec man in his twenties who’s gearing up to move to Australia for work. For a while, it’s par for the course, opening with the title pair as they head out to reunite with their high school friends. It’s a pretty interchangeable bunch save for Erika (Camille Felton), an “OMG!” art kid whose main talent is goading others into her short films. Matthias and Maxime sure aren’t into the possibility, though, and it isn’t until they lose a bet that they fall into the obligation.
And of course, it just has to be a kissing scene, which is especially awkward since the pair made out once in high school. Not only do they have to be in a student film striving to be impressionistic and expressionistic at the same time, but they also have to dig up their teenage drama and wade through the consequences. It sounds like well-worn material and sometimes falls towards its easier trappings, but Dolan imbues the film with the heart of someone who wants refuses to surrender to any such label.
It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker treat those onscreen as people instead of characters.
It’s quite knowing at times, not the least of which comes from a plethora of affectionate digs at the art scene. Dolan and André Turpin (Mommy) keep a keen eye on the hangout-driven scenes with a hyperactive shooting style that matches the verbal hoopla with a scrappy sense of life. It’s the quieter, more character-driven scenes that guide Matthias and Maxime forward, though, many of which involve Maxime’s home life with his unstable mother, Manon (Anne Dorval).
At first, its structural choices feel a bit emaciated. For each Maxime-driven scene comes one of equal measure for Matthias, in which he works through his office job and forges a homoerotic friendship with a bro-y American client named McAfee (Harris Dickinson). When the film lets their stories function apart from each other, the film works better, freeing itself from its narrative trappings and capitalizing on its mumblecore-esque realism.
It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker treat those onscreen as people instead of characters, and Matthias and Maxime has a ripe texture as it ebbs and flows between its two leads’ respective lives. But therein lies one of the film’s biggest issues: its insistence on connecting the dots into a something more centered than it ought to be.
There are sinews that feel like filler instead of cohesion, and it becomes later on in the film that some supporting roles show themselves as glorified plot devices. Erika, for example? A ton of fun to laugh at and symbolic of the film’s pulse early on, but little more than a contrivance once she begins to dissipate. Dolan achieves a bit more success with McAfee, though, as he and Dickinson play with erotic tension without committing to any true labels in terms of sexuality.
Most of these seeds sprout well enough to carry the viewer through the 119-minute runtime, even when its narrative ambitions begin to crumble. The last 25 minutes of the film can feel like a Möbius strip of false endings, and it’s one of the earlier ones that works the best. Dolan isn’t always one to quit while he’s ahead and it’d have helped him to do so here, but at its core, it’s something queer, young, and messy, often all at the same time, without ever being just one of those things.