Matthias et Maxime (2019/20)
Director: Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas, Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Harris Dickinson, Marilyn Castonguay, Antoine Pilon, Pier-Luc Funk, Catherine Brunet, Samuel Gauthier, Adib Alkhalidey, Camille Felton
Over the past decade or so, one name has become synonymous with the melodrama: Xavier Dolan. Emulating the achievements of great filmmakers from both his native language (French) cinema and the greats of Hollywood to time and time again produce modern fables of love, loss and our relationships to one another, the Canadian auteur has earned himself critical acclaim and a host of awards, all the while bringing French-Canadian cinema to prominence for a new audience. His latest effort, Cannes 2019 competition entry Matthias et Maxime (Matthias & Maxime) is another strong release, a film that mixes the intimacy of Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm) with the energy of Mommy, and hooks it into a narrative similar to that of It’s Only the End of the World, his titular character Maxime this time coming to terms with leaving his home for life on the other side of the globe in Australia. Dolan is a filmmaker who promises passion and longing, and engagement with the little things that make life what it is, and in Matthias et Maxime he has struck again, creating an intimate portrait of how big each of our small lives can feel in the immediacy of every passing moment.
Matthias et Maxime begins at a rocket-like pace, the screenwriter-director assembling a cabin party scene that features three different conversations taking place at once, each introduced at intervals and functioning individually to introduce conflict, then push the narrative forward, and thirdly outline key aspects of character and each character’s position in the group dynamic. The sequence is cut at an increasing speed as the conversation hots up, pointed changes from wide shots to extreme close-ups punctuating the visual language at important moments and emphasising all we’ll need to know about the central premise from the off. It’s a masterful moment, one that is never quite lived up to as the film goes on but speaks of a filmmaker with an inherent understanding of how to create something both realistic (in this case, a realistic conversation between a group of friends) and simultaneously meaningful. Its function, to primarily introduce tension between the two titular characters – Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Xavier Dolan himself) – and lead into a fateful kiss that changes their entire relationship, makes for one of the most quietly spectacular opening acts of the year.
Answering the simple question of what could happen if a staged kiss brought out repressed romantic feelings between two lifelong friends of the same gender, Matthias et Maxime offers all the hallmarks of Dolan’s greatest work. The story is ultimately about longing for someone or something that feels out of reach, no matter how close they/it may seem, but this isn’t just a film about romantic pursuit, it’s a story about finding your place in the world, no matter what makes you feel different or unworthy, and Dolan delivers this in every beat. As has become the norm for this filmmaker’s projects, there is passion aplenty, but where Dolan’s greatest work excels the most is in its intimate, layered portrayals of characters who don’t just fit into one generic archetype but challenge our pre-conceived notions of what to expect from protagonists and antagonists in cinema, instead surprising us with people who feel tangible, almost real. Matthias et Maxime delivers this with aplomb.
Dolan himself is, as always, utterly compelling. And, while his performance may feel familiar to those who are fans of his other acting work, the small evolutions he offers in his portrayal gift the character a relatable familiarity and distinct individuality, all the while exclaiming his terrific authorial presence and continued development as a filmmaker. His leading of the cast is one seen through his own lens, which perpetuates the presentation of how seemingly small moments can feel earth-shattering to each of us at any time, whether anyone else is aware of them or not. Dolan places himself at the heart of the story, and films as if presenting himself as what he wishes to be in the eyes of other people, but this comes across as more intimate and necessary than self-indulgent, and makes for a number of truly beautiful moments that he executes superbly on both sides of the camera.
Matthias et Maxime isn’t going to be a film for everyone, its melodramatic narrative and presentations of inward thoughts and desires likely to gain the wrong kind of attention from audiences wishing for more modern, concept-driven cinema. It could also be argued that this latest release is not quite as tight as Dolan’s more celebrated It’s Only the End of the World, sometimes deviating unnecessarily as the author pursues deeper meaning in the project, and it is a purposefully toned down approach for Matthias et Maxime compared to the energetic and instantly recognisable Mommy and Heartbeats. But, so far as classic Sirkian melodrama goes, this is another truly fantastic offering from a filmmaker who at 31 years of age has already released a plethora of year-topping dramas, Matthias et Maxime being the latest. This may not be the one to make you fall in love with this already legendary young filmmaker, but it is a must-watch for fans of his work and a moving portrait of youth and passion nonetheless.