It’s been a rough few years for Xavier Dolan. After the career high of Mommy, he teamed up with some of France’s most celebrated actors for It’s Only the End of the World – a critically divisive film that generated an infamous Mads Mikkelsen reaction gif when it unexpectedly took home the Grand Prix at Cannes 2016. The chorus of boos that greeted his win made him vow never to return to the festival, and he had his sights set on a bigger world stage, with an English language debut and an ensemble of Hollywood’s biggest names. That film, The Death and Life of John F Donovan, caused controversy before its release after he cut out a Jessica Chastain supporting performance in its entirety, received his worst reviews to date at its Toronto premiere, and never found distributors outside of France and Canada.
With Matthias et Maxime, he’s returned to his home country after detours in France and the US, finding himself firmly back within his comfort zone for the first time in five years, and back at the festival he said he’d never attend again. It’s not exactly a return to the magnificent highs of Mommy, but it is his best film in quite some time – a rare case of a director regaining their strength by playing it safe, and showing some signs of maturity compared to how they previously dealt with similar material.
Maxime (Dolan) is two weeks away from leaving his life in Canada behind to take a two year world trip, starting on the opposite side of the globe in Melbourne. He plans on spending the last couple of weeks seeing friends, and on one weekend getaway, volunteers to star in a student short film – his friend Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) losing a bet and having to take the opposite role. The scene requires the pair to kiss, something which Maxime doesn’t think twice about, but causes Matthias to unpack a lot of suppressed emotions. Does he have romantic feelings for Maxime, or is he just coming to the dawning realisation that one of his childhood friends is finally moving away, with no more meaningful memories to be created for the foreseeable future?
Compared to Dolan’s other films, this is one of his most mature to date; there is a sharp reduction in melodramatic screaming matches between characters, and the film is mostly shot like a conventional drama, not utilising any of his favoured stylistic gimmicks. It often feels like he’s demonstrating how he’s learned from his recent mistakes, returning to what people have loved about his previous films while approaching a familiar story as a more mature artist. Matthias et Maxime is still far from subtle, but it’s more down to earth than we could have ever possibly expected from Dolan.
The film plays to his most underrated strength, that’s usually buried beneath his commanding visual sensibility – his ability to create small character moments that are so familiar and sharply realised, it’s surprising to discover they’re not improvised. These are sometimes funny (the budding filmmaker who alternates between English and French phrases, or an out of town boss demonstrating how cool he is by awkwardly dabbing), and in other circumstances, transform a mundane scenario into a moment of pure cinematic magic. The moment where the two titular characters confront Matthias’ complicated feelings is accompanied by party goers running out into the rain, in a hurry to pick their clothes back off the washing line. Only Dolan could make something so ordinary one of the year’s most breathtaking film scenes.
The story itself plays out in the way you’d expect, with a healthy dose of melancholy as two friends realise their feelings for each other at the moment it’s too late to do anything about it. And yet it still feels like a breath of fresh air compared to Dolan’s recent, weaker efforts – we’re back on familiar terrain, firmly within the director’s comfort zone, and it’s great to see him return to form, if not fully back to the peak of his powers.