When Is a Kiss Just a Kiss? Out Filmmaker Xavier Dolan on his New Film, 'Matthias & Maxime'

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 21, 2020

The achievements for out director, actor, and writer Xavier Dolan are almost too numerous to count. If you are unfamiliar with Dolan's work, the Canadian "wunderkind" has made waves with every film he's directed from his debut feature "I Killed My Mother," which won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival alone when Dolan was only 19, to winning the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Cesar Award in France with the radiant and heartbreaking "Mommy" in 2015. He next made headlines when "It's Only the End of the World" took the Cannes Grand Prix win in 2017. It really seems like everything Dolan touches is gold.

What is interesting about Dolan's work is his preternatural knack at getting deep into the psyches of his characters. And with just a handful of films, he has shown himself to be one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. Thematically he is drawn to stories centered on women and mothers, and his work often contains LGBTQ content. But what is frustrating is that not a lot of people in the U.S. LGBTQ community know who he is, despite his numerous and provocative fare. He is also very easy on the eyes and often appears in his own films where he shows his considerable acting chops. Aside from his own work, he's appeared in such films as "The Elephant Song," "IT: Chapter 2," and "Boy Erased."

Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas and Xavier Dolan in "Matthias & Maxime"

Dolan works largely in Quebec in his native French. After six features, he took on his first English language film, "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan." During and after production, it brought the 31-year old considerable attention due to its starry cast (Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Kit Harrington, and Thandie Newton), and was looked at as being his breakout Hollywood film; but it was not greeted well by critics after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018. Since then it has achieved cult status on outlets such as Hulu, Amazon Prime and Starz where it is streamed. So instead of pursuing another big-budgeted project, Dolan returned to his indie roots (and the French language) with the touching character study, "Matthias & Maxime," currently available for streaming on MUBI.

The film focuses on a group of lifelong friends and how, late in their twenties, the friendships starts to change; especially with best friends Matt (played by Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas) and Max (played by Dolan). After a weekend away, the two men (who define themselves as straight) are dragged into a student film project where they are required to kiss each other. That moment fuels the rest of the film with the two men coming to terms with what the moment meant to them.

I recently got the chance to chat with Dolan about his new film, what draws him to the stories he chooses to write about, and what we can expect from him in the future.

Xavier Dolan in "Matthias & Maxime"

EDGE: What I loved about the film was that it didn't make the central issue about the lead's sexuality. It seemed to focus more on the two leads trying to come to terms with their love and attraction for each other. Was it a deliberate choice not to make this so much about being closeted, as it was about admitting unspoken truths?

Xavier Dolan: Yes! I think people take for granted my character is gay because I am gay in life, but the truth is both characters are actually straight. So the story's never been about closeted men but, rather, men who wonder, and doubt, quite tardily in life because they've simply never asked themselves any questions at all about what they took for granted was their definitive sexuality.

EDGE: I'm always impressed with your ability to dive into complex emotions and issues — some of which involve characters that are sometimes older than yourself or from different backgrounds. What is your process for examining issues that you might not have direct experience with? For example, the two mothers in "Matthias & Maxime" which were vastly different and very distinct.

Xavier Dolan: I'm just fascinated with people — their problems, their flaws, how they react whenever they're challenged. How they cope with adversity, hardship. I think people reveal themselves in those situations and I've spent my entire life watching them, taking notes, I guess. Especially with women. I was raised by my mom in the suburbs, and she often had friends over. I grew up surrounded by these strong, colorful women who, it seems, have all faced adversity with courage, humor and resilience. They always inspire me. When I write a character, I just try to get my head around who they are, who they once were, where they come from. Then I find answers. And it ends up being a mix of mom, and mom's friends, and me, and all the people I've been spying on forever.

Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas in "Matthias & Maxime"

EDGE: Much of the power of your films lies in the spaces in between the dialogue. Is that written into the script, or do you discover a lot of that on set with your actors?

Xavier Dolan: Some silences, some spaces are written, and some others aren't. We find so many things on set indeed. And I work with actors who, rather than improvising lines — which I generally dislike — improvise moments, and act in between words. They act with each other, without interruption, and never stop thinking. I love that so much.

EDGE: One of my random favorite lines in "Mommy" is when Steve (a troubled teen being home-schooled by a furloughed teacher across the street) is playing a Celine Dion song and yells "she's a National treasure!"

That said, I adore your use of music in your films. I find myself using Shazam a lot when I'm watching them. Sometimes it's like you've pulled them right out of my personal music library, too. How do your music choices come to you?

Xavier Dolan: It varies! With time, I've stopped forcing my own musical tastes on my characters — meaning, I try to be sensitive to what characters might like, and listen to. I try and put songs into films, as opposed to "onto" films.

EDGE: In "Matthias & Maxime," the mudroom sequence was so powerful that I found myself sobbing because there were so many layers to what was going on. Was that a difficult scene to get right?

Xavier Dolan: You mean the scene where I find Matt's childhood drawing? I was worried about having to cry. I'm unable to. I always find myself in situations where I had to and, somehow, I'm just not that actor. I hold back, or can't let go, and even if I try I can't push that button and just cry. Physically, it's impossible. I admire those who can. Even envy them. So I'd made peace with not crying in that scene and was just acting around it. Crying isn't a necessity anyway. We started shooting it and I found myself so emotional, unexpectedly, that I had to control myself as I wanted to burst into tears from the first word that's spoken in the scene, way before it was "time to cry." I was a mess. Don't know what happened. But I was very happy with it!

A scene from "Matthias & Maxime"

EDGE: Aside from Matt and Max's storyline, there is an aspect of your film that speaks to the change in the relationship between longtime friends. Matt and Max's friends have been together for so many years, but there are moments where you can see how Max is outgrowing them. In that sense, the film feels partly about the loss of those friendships we think will last forever. In contrast, Matt and Max's friendship could be lost if the feelings that have come up because of "the kiss" backfire or are unresolved. Can you speak to what drew you to these themes?

Xavier Dolan: I'm not [personally] experiencing those "friendship" breakups at all. But I feel like, past the age of 30, they're inevitable for most people. You change, and the jokes you've heard forever aren't funny anymore. People have kids. Move to the suburbs. My friends are mostly actors, like me, and we've found each other in my late twenties, although some of them have been in my life since I was ten. Our lives are compatible and I don't find there are these unbridgeable chasms between us. On the contrary, we are closer than ever. Perhaps it is that realization that made me want to talk about the opposite situation.

EDGE: Actress Anne Dorval ("Mommy") is practically unrecognizable and completely fantastic as your mother in the film. I love that you continue to work with some of the same actors. Do you write your films with particular actors in mind?

Xavier Dolan: I do! I generally have someone in mind. I love writing for actors that impress me, and I love writing parts in which I think they'll do things that are different from what they've done before.

Xavier Dolan at the Rome Film Festival in 2017. (photo: Associated Press)

EDGE: So what genre of film would you like to tackle next?

Xavier Dolan: Horror and thrillers!!!!

EDGE: American audiences recently saw you in a pivotal role in "It: Chapter Two," as well as "Boy Erased." You chose to play the role of Max here. How do you decide if you want to be in one of your films, and do you want to continue to act in projects other than your own?

Xavier Dolan: I actually mostly want to act for others, and not for myself. But I don't really have a choice than to write parts for myself if I want to act as very few directors think of me as an actor. I'm not complaining. That's the career I've built for myself with its assumptions and limits, I guess. I only cast myself when there is a part for me, really. It just happens. I could write one, I know. But I just write a story, and then I cast myself or not. Which explains why I hadn't been in my own films since "Tom at the Farm." There just weren't any parts for me!

EDGE: I could probably ask a slew of other questions, but I won't keep you. You really are a gifted filmmaker and it's been really nice getting the chance to pick your brain.

Xavier Dolan: Thank you for your questions! I'm so happy you liked the film and thank God MUBI has made it available now. I'm really grateful people can watch it.

"Matthias & Maxime" is playing exclusively on the streaming service MUBI, which specializes in curated, hand-picked films from film-festivals all over the world.

To learn more about MUBI where you can watch "Mattias & Maxime," follow this link

Watch the trailer to "Matthias & Maxime":

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.

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