Edited by Karli Wessale
Art by Edith Pritchett https://www.instagram.com/edithpritchett_art/
French-Canadian actor and director Xavier Dolan’s debut film, J’ai tué Ma mère (I Killed My Mother) released in 2009, when he was twenty years old. Dolan is a self-proclaimed gay actor, director, writer and costume designer. J’ai tué ma mère has won the hearts of many critics as it depicts, in a highly Bildungsroman fashion, a love-hate relationship between a teenage son and his mother. Recently, he has made a name for himself with his 2016 movie Juste la fin du monde (It’s only the End of the World). The movie won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and several other awards. While he is best known for Mommy, released in 2014, in this article, I will focus on J’ai tué ma mère and attempt to justify the need for this movie to be a part of the university syllabi.
A year ago, I was introduced to this movie through a recommendation from my friends. I was initially interested because I am learning French and was eager to find out whether I would be able to follow the film without subtitles. I was wrong on two counts. One, Canadian French is spoken and pronounced differently than in France – I was unable to pick up on most of the words. And two, like all great movies, you do not need to know the language to understand its message and aesthetics. It is a delight to watch. If you are looking for a film with a plot and a definitive beginning, middle and end, it is not for you. This film essentially lacks a plot as it follows the life of Hubert, played by Dolan and Chantale, played by Anne Dorval. The film is exactly how a blog named Light and Shadow describes it, “If you plan to see J’ai tué ma mère with the hopes of seeing a film about matricide, you will be disappointed.”
If you stumble upon IMDB while casually looking for this film, the synopsis you will find hardly does justice to this work of art: “A semi-autobiographical story about Hubert as a young homosexual at odds with his mother.” Although Hubert’s homosexuality constitutes a minor part of the rift between mother and son, the film does not blame his sexual orientation. This is refreshing as it respects his orientation as a natural aspect of his character. Furthermore, it shows that conflict in a familial relationship need not be based on a child’s sexuality. There are other reasons for the son and the mother to love and hate each other. As the film shows, Chantale, Hubert’s mother, is more upset that he did not inform her about his homosexuality than the fact that he is gay. Critics and reviewers define the movie as semi-autobiographical. Similar to Hubert, Dolan has been raised by a single mother, and according to his interviews, his father was often absent. However, I also believe in separating the artist from their personal lives while viewing their work. Dolan’s creation is inspired by his surroundings and his upbringing, but it is the universality of the film which shines through his influences.
Spanning almost an hour and forty minutes, the film emphasises above all else the complexity of human nature and its paradoxical aspects. It is very easy to engage in normative, stereotypical thinking when the topic of a teenager and a mother is raised. Perhaps due to our exposure to pop culture, we will immediately resort to a trope of a teen throwing a tantrum while an exasperated mother desperately tries to keep them in check. The film exhibits effortlessly, and without any sensationalism, that human life is not as simple as that. There is a lot of screaming on both sides and the dialogue sometimes threatens to be on the verge of dramatic – but in a very realistic manner, Dolan shows both mother and son at fault. Hubert can seem selfish and is prone to anger whenever something challenges him, but Chantale also forgets things she has promised her son and often criticises him even if he has done nothing wrong. The film shatters the myth that mothers can love unconditionally and even introduces the idea that not all women want to be mothers. This is a fact Hubert understands: he is the one who mentions it in one of the black and white sequences of the movie, and it is not Chantale who complains of it.
The film also merits a place in a film studies syllabus due to its cinematography. The complexity of the characters is complemented with a non-straightforward approach to direction. The movie is scattered with black and white shots of Hubert speaking to a video camera, stills of relevant photos to mark the change of scenes, flashbacks, and slow motions with a musical score to denote Hubert’s emotional turmoil. However, I believe that it will fit nicely in a Literature course as it deals with characterisation, relationships and aspects of life. Regardless of their obvious incompatibility in terms of varied interests, Hubert and Chantale are always fighting because they are essentially flawed and very human. Hubert’s sexual orientation is made evident and not censured. His relationship with Antonin is explored freely, but more importantly, not exaggerated and it is treated as any other romantic relationship. The film hints at the effects of bullying and also about what is expected of women (yet again, an idea pointed out by Hubert and not Chantale). In one of its most charged scenes, it depicts a patriarchal attitude – one which is prevalent around all of us – towards single mothers. It stresses on writing as a therapeutic form and uses quotes from Maupassant and Musset.
What I love about the movie is that its content is relevant around the world. The film might be made in Canada but it is accessible to any viewer because of its ability to disregard labels. Homosexuality is not a label, being a teenager is not a label, being a mother, a partner, a teacher, is not a label. The fact that it lacks a plot helps in this aspect. The film is a vignette of Hubert’s and Chantale’s lives, and all we get is a little glimpse of it. At the end, when Chantale finds her runaway son, we can be sure that it is not the last time that they will fight. The film does not seek to resolve the conflict; its only aim is to address it. That we, as humans, are paradoxical beings can be seen in Hubert’s lines in one of his videotaping sessions: “It is a paradox having a mother that you are incapable of loving but incapable not to love.”
Bradshaw, Peter. “Xavier Dolan: ‘If I didn’t make movies, I would be a very angry man’.” The Guardian, 22 Feb 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/22/xavier-dolan-if-i-didnt-make-movies-i-would-be-a-very-angry-man. Accessed 19 March 2017.
“I Killed My Mother”. IMDB, www.imdb.com/title/tt1424797. Accessed 19 March 2017.
Groen, Rick. “An archetypal teen takes on his mother’s inner tiger.” The Globe and Mail, 5 Feb 2010, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/i-killed-my-mother-jai-tue-ma-mere/article4304732. Accessed 19 March 2017.
Fontaine, Miriam. McIntosh, Andrew. “Xavier Dolan.” Historica Canada, 5 July 2012, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/xavier-dolan. Accessed 19 March 2017.
Forster, Nicholas. “J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) Review.” Light and Shadow, 20 March 2010, blogs.bu.edu/lightandshadow/2010/03/20/j%E2%80%99ai-tue-ma-mere-i-killed-my-mother-review. Accessed 19 March 2017.
About the author:
Ananya is currently an MA student in English Literature in Jadavpur University, following completion of a BA degree in the same course. Although literature is her first love, somewhere along the line she changed her mind about having a career in academia. In the future, she wants like to pursue creative writing and hopefully have a career in translation because of her interest in the French language.