Xavier Dolan on sex, gay friendship and Paris Hilton

The French-Canadian filmmaker discusses his reflective new drama, Matthias and Maxime, and explains why he still feels ashamed of putting gay sex on screen.

At 31, princely-looking French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan is one of the industry’s romantic filmmakers – a Douglas Sirk for the TikTok generation. His films feel like unrequited love letters, rife with scenes of family dysfunction soundtracked by Grimes and Britney Spears. 

In the last 11 years, he has released nine films – an output comparable to Jean-Luc Godard in his heyday (with whom he shared the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014, for Mommy). In addition to writing his own screenplays, Dolan also produces and, with the exception of his debut I Killed My Mother, edits his films too. This is again the case with his latest, Matthias & Maxime, released today exclusively on Mubi.

Despite his acclaim amongst overseas cineastes, the director has struggled to swim in more mainstream waters, saying to The Guardian in 2014: No one knows me in the States, because the movies have been released in such an awkward, irregular fashion, all by different distributors, [with] no continuity.” 

This culminated in last year’s delayed release of The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan’s poorly received English-language debut that veered too much into melodrama. In pleasing contrast, the director now delivers his most restrained film to date.

Matthias & Maxime feels like a homecoming for Dolan, who steps in front of the camera for the first time since 2013’s Tom at the Farm. Returning to his native Quebec, he explores familiarly thematic terrain in a scaled-back story of subjugated sexuality that simmers rather than sizzles. 

Dolan’s characters – usually prone to screaming, crying and glancing wistfully into the camera – spend long portions of this film lounging around. They are childhood best friends who joke and wrestle with one another through a dense fug of cigarette smoke and repressed desire. It’s a hangout movie through and through, though under Dolan’s direction, the camera lingers on crotches and averted glances while the men crack Harry Potter jokes. 

Repressed emotion and tacit desire comes bubbling to the surface when two of them (the titular characters, played by Dolan and newcomer Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) kiss for a short film. The pair’s friendship splinters as a result, and their reunion at a house party several months later comes to a head on a washing machine in the director’s most erotic scene to date. 

Dolan has been labelled something of a prodigy since I Killed My Mother premiered at Cannes in 2009, and Matthias and Maxime channels a similarly homegrown vibe (complete with Anne Dorval as Maxime’s harebrained mom). The key difference, however, lies in Dolan’s direction, as he trades in his tyrannical confidence for a quieter assuredness that centres the intimacy of friendships that wouldn’t have felt quite as naturally earned until now. 

Coming out of the dog days of the season delirious from the heat, Matthias and Maxime is the perfect reflective thirst-quencher to end your summer with.

Nine films into your career, what do you have left to say about adolescence?

Many things, I guess. I think we drag adolescence into our adult lives and it never really leaves us, and that is an inner battle – with the kid inside – worth showing and telling. But really this film is about two 30-year-olds questioning their sexuality. So I’d say out of nine films, only two really talk about adolescence.

Why is there internalised homophobia in your characters so often?

Isn’t there so much internalised homophobia all around in real life as well? I just think showing it is an efficient way to start a conversation. 

The dynamic between the men resembles that of a fraternity. There’s a laid-back, hang-out vibe, and then also playful behaviour that can quickly erupt into violence. What do you find interesting about male friendships?

Most of what interests me lies up there, in your question, actually: laid-back, chill energy that quickly evolves into violence, either psychological or physical. And what truly lies beneath those instincts. That irrepressible need to hit, insult, fight, wrestle.

Do you think an inherent homoeroticism is at play?

Well, yes. As a homosexual you tend to think that, watching straight men behave towards one another. But, most of the time, there’s not much to it. And sometimes, there is. 

What was the reasoning behind cutting away before the titular characters kiss? 

I thought we’d yearn for a true, real kiss between them both the minute we were deprived of their fictional” kiss. Meaning: as soon as we cut that first kiss, I think we know the film won’t end before there’s another one.

The climax of the film involves an erotic encounter on a washing machine. How do you go about depicting sex in films in general?

I guess I’m a little coy – always afraid of showing too much. I think that mostly comes from being gay. I’ve seen onscreen straight sex all my life in film, and quite graphic [scenes] to say the least. But gay sex, you’d think, will make most people uncomfortable. It’s terrible to admit it, but I guess there’s still a lot of shame in me. I keep thinking, My uncles will see this. My family… They’ll be uncomfortable.” Yet I’d never have that reflection if it were straight sex [being] depicted.

How did Harris Dickinson get cast? 

I reached out to him after seeing Beach Rats. I think he’s phenomenal, and he’s great fun in life. I find him curious and nerdy in a way, and eloquent, and fun to hang out with. And on an artistic level, well, he’s as committed and impressive as a young actor can be. The fact he’d accept such a small part in this film… it’s unusual. Most young, successful actors will see a small part as derogatory or counter-productive. Their agents will tell them if they’re seen in such roles they’ll send the wrong image. I find that stupid.

Gay sex, you’d think, will make most people uncomfortable. I keep thinking, My uncles will see this. My family… They’ll be uncomfortable.’ Yet I’d never have that reflection if it were straight sex [being] depicted.”

You have an active Instagram presence (and nearly one million followers), and I’ve noticed quite a varied group of celebrities comment on your posts, including Natalie Portman (who you worked with on The Death & Life of John F. Donovan), Rosalía, Jacob Elordi and, most surprisingly, Paris Hilton. What’s your relationship like with her?

I’ve met her a couple times at parties. She’s fun. She was engaged to my friend Chris [Zylka]. I guess Instagram is this incredible vehicle that now acts as a facilitator and builds bridges between us. It’s arduous to get in touch with artists through their representation. And now Instagram is like meeting them in an elevator and getting a chance to say: By the way, I love what you do.” Next thing you know, they like what you do as well and you befriend each other and start a conversation. Honestly, I can’t even count the number of friends I’ve made online since I decided I’d reach out directly to people I admire or appreciate. 

What are you working on at the moment?

A mini-series. I’m also adapting a French horror short story set in the late 1800s. And working on a new script! Trying to keep myself busy and be ready to jump in with both feet whenever I can shoot again. Here, in Quebec, it’s impossible at the moment with the pandemic. Unless you want your characters to be five feet apart at all times. And never kiss, nor hug.

On Instagram, you often post poignant messages about films and TV that have spoken to you (Euphoria and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for example). Have there been any similarly gratifying watches as of late?

Yes. I’ve watched Eliza Hittman’s new film, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, and it was so beautiful. And I just watched her first one, It Felt Like Love, on MUBI, and was equally impressed and enthralled!


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