Saturday, October 10, 2009

2009 Toronto International Film Festival - Update Three

J’ai Tue Ma Mere (I Killed My Mother) - ****

Write about what you know, they say. Same goes for film. 

September seventeenth, 2009. There are scenes in the only movie I saw today (‘J’ai Tue Ma Mere’; I Killed My Mother) that are real to the point of gasping recognition. Real in the sense that the worst of reality can be. Real in the way that two people who love each other terribly can say and do the most hurtful and damaging things to one other. I have not seen a movie that so perfectly captures the ebb and pull of a relationship prone to emotional excess in quite some time. Funnily, I have scarcely much in common with the situations the movie describes, and yet it felt oddly familiar, this documentation of familial emotional violence.

There are several things that make this movie remarkable. First, the relationship in question is not between two lovers, but as the title indicates, between a mother and son. The movie is so specific in its details because it needs to be, and yet, the dialog takes off from almost the very first few frames into such well-worn patterns from real life, that you forget you are watching a movie. Instead it feels like eavesdropping. Only the very best movies can do this, that is, pull the viewer from out of his seat and into the lives of the people on the screen. I forgot I was sitting in this cinema watching this movie, and instead felt like I was visiting these people. This is one of the hardest things to do in a movie.

The second, and perhaps greater evidence of how remarkable this movie is the fact that it has been written, produced, directed and (lead) acted by a twenty year old. He was sixteen when he wrote the screenplay. Again, the recurring theme from the past two days at the festival, strikes with uncannily strong resonance. That of the young taking the camera and creating products of breathtaking confidence. If a celebrated filmmaker had made this movie, I would be no less enthralled by it, but the fact that a kid from Quebec decided to spend what little money he had to make a movie that is largely autobiographical (one presumes) and came up with something this searing is hard to ignore. The prodigal Xavier Dolan wrote a screenplay that is quite simply about his relationship with his mother when growing up as an adolescent. And then made a movie out of it. Somewhere in between he generated a product that premiered at Cannes, won three awards there, and is now being shown at the Toronto Film Festival. If young filmmakers, or old ones for that matter, want to find inspiration, they cannot do much better than Xavier Dolan. I am already waiting to see what he is going to do next when he turns the weary old age of twenty one.

A word about the acting here. Bad acting is easy to identify, but good acting is undefinable, it is just there, natural as the air you breathe, and unfettered, unpretentious even in the most extreme things being depicted. The actress Anne Dorval plays the titular mother with such effortless realism in portraying a specific woman, that I wondered at one point if the movie was a documentary constructed from taped scenes from the director’s life. As for the other lead, the director, it is bizarre that someone this young can elicit a performance this unaffected. Consider how indulgent it would have seemed if the acting was anything less than note-perfect in a movie directed, produced and written by the lead actor.

I do not want to spend too much time about the plot. The title may lead you to believe it is horror movie about a child killing its mother. The title simply refers to a situation early in the movie, when a school-teacher asks students to interview their parents for a project. The lead character, unwilling to engage his mother, lies to his teacher that his mother is dead (and could he interview his aunt instead?). How twisted can your relationship be with your mother that you would rather figuratively kill your mother than have a serious discussion with her. The movie is a simple documentation of the hard-earned ups and terrible downs in a relationship between this mother and this son. And it never feels indulgent, or repetitive, because every character is allowed to be flawed and mean, and irrational and petty. Just like real life. But there is also great love. Would it not be good if this movie were to find the same bond with audiences worldwide, who would be exasperated, horrified, united, and enraged while watching the movie, but who would also greatly love it. Just like the two main characters.

Publicity shot for 'J'ai Tue Ma Mere' (I Killed My Mother) used at TIFF 2009

[P.S. I fear that this movie may get labeled as a ‘gay movie’ (or worse marketed that way) because the lead actor and director is matter-of-factly gay and a story of his life relates to this fact occasionally. But I hope this does not limit the movie, because it will spark the flare of recognition in any audience member who has had a tumultuous relationship with another family member. I hear that this movie has already been picked up as Canada's entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, so it should hopefully get seen by many]

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