French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is 26 years old and has made five features in the past five years. His latest, Tom at the Farm (in theaters and on VOD now), in which he also stars, is his most mainstream — a dark thriller in the Hitchcock mold, which even has a chase scene set in a cornfield, à la North by Northwest. But that’s a film, incidentally, he insists he’s never seen.
“I hadn’t watched any Hitchcock movies when I made Tom at the Farm, except for Vertigo when I was 8 years old,” he says. “I don’t have a sophisticated film knowledge, but I have seen the legacy of classic movies in broader entertainment. When I saw Bryan Singer’s Usual Suspects, I knew how it was going to end because I’d seen Scary Movie. Which is not the preferred order of things, but that’s how it is, because my childhood was Home Alone, Matilda, Batman Returns, Jumanji, Secret Garden, Jack, Mrs. Doubtfire, Titanic. Only family films from the ’90s.”
Dolan runs through that movie list without taking a breath, but laughs at the end, suggesting that he might be kidding. Or not. His films, especially 2014’s miraculous Mommy, about a teen with ADHD and the two women in his life (played by the two muses in Dolan’s, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement), throb with pop songs and a sort of Leo-on-the-ship’s-prow emotionalism. His 2012 epic Laurence Anyways charts the decades-long romance between a transgender schoolteacher and her girlfriend, and wears its heart on its sleeve for every minute of its nearly three-hour running time. And his personal taste shows no sign of highbrow warping. “Oh, did you see Amy Schumer on Ellen?” he asks, excitedly. “They showed her Entertainment Weekly cover. You know, the one where she’s laying on a lot of mini-bottles of alcohol. And she went, ‘The bottles are regular sized, I’m just a giant.’ I thought that was really funny.”
But his anti-film-snob posturing isn’t always convincing. Point out that his debut, 2009’s I Killed My Mother, seemed influenced by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, and he admits, “Okay, I was aping his In the Mood for Love.” His sophomore effort, the love-triangle Heartbeats, features a male object of desire clearly inspired by the iconic Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. (Which Dolan also owns up to, but he doesn’t miss an opportunity to get in a roundabout dig at Jean-Luc Godard: “People thought Heartbeats was inspired by Godard’s Contempt, but I have never seen Contempt and now that I’ve heard Godard has said [negative] things about Mommy, I will never see it.”) When Mommy won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Dolan tearfully thanked jury president Jane Campion, remarking, “Few [movies] changed my life the way your Piano did.”
The Piano wouldn’t appear to share a lot in common with the Chris Columbus comedies that shaped his childhood, but Dolan explains that Tom at the Farm (which he made before Mommy), “appealed to me because it was an opportunity to do a genre movie. I had always dreamed of doing a thriller. Silence of the Lambs was also a huge movie for me when I was a kid, one of the true quality movies that I’d seen when I was young. And I wanted to restrict myself to the rules and the choices of a genre. It’s all been done, it’s all been made. I just wanted to bring my own style to it.”
Genre is something that Dolan, in his role as a voice translator for the French dubs of blockbuster movies, has a fair deal of experience with. He dubbed Ron Weasley in all eight Harry Potter movies, plus Jacob the werewolf in the Twilight films. “I still do it a lot. I’m Dylan O’Brian in Maze Runner. I just did the second one, Scorch Trials, a week ago. It takes about 15 hours, sometimes 12 or 10. I dubbed Nat Wolff in Paper Towns, actually Nat Wolff in everything. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Josh Hutcherson, Nicholas Hoult, Eddie Redmayne, those guys, in all of their films.”
A former child actor in his native Quebec, Dolan continues to appear onscreen outside of his own movies. He plays an institutionalized man in Elephant Song, an English-language film costarring Catherine Keener, which opened in Canada in February. He says he’s never resisted the siren call of Hollywood, but despite looking at “many, many, many, many, many scripts,” he hasn’t yet appeared in an American movie. “Sometimes I didn’t like the material or I auditioned and wasn’t offered the part. But also sometimes I read a script and think, ‘I wouldn’t want to commit to playing this part for three months, but f— it, I’ll be dubbing him in a year.”
Dolan’s candor and effusiveness has annoyed some in the film industry. Often the ribbing is playful: At this year’s Cannes, Dolan served on the jury and gushed, “I feel like a better person” for doing so, to which fellow juror Jake Gyllenhaal deadpanned, “You’re not, Xavier.” But occasionally it’s poison-penned: After a scathing Hollywood Reporter review of Tom at the Farm accused Dolan of adoring his own close-ups, he tweeted at the publication: “you can kiss my narcissistic ass.” He doesn’t regret it. “There are as many close-ups of everybody else in the film as there are of me,” he says. “That was a review of my personality, not of my work.”
His work, indeed, has smart actors — particularly actresses — everywhere lining up to collaborate with him. Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux star in his next movie, a recently-wrapped drama called It’s Only the End of the World; Jessica Chastain and Kit Harington are in the one after that, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a commentary on gossip, fame and Hollywood, which will be Dolan’s first film in English.
And he gets most excited, almost contagiously, when talking about the power of performance. Just mention a name — be it Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams or Rooney Mara — and he’ll bounce in his chair, gesturing with his arms how their performances have moved him. “Actors have a one-foot square in which their face can play,” he says. “And, by God, the great ones use every f—ing inch of it.” He might have learned that from watching Macaulay Culkin slap his cheeks in the mirror, but it’s the truth nonetheless.
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