Xavier Dolan is no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival.
As the director of eight feature films (most of which have premiered at Cannes) by the age of 30, Dolan has been deeply immersed in filmmaking throughout his life. Now, with his new film, Matthias & Maxime, he’s looking back on his experiences as a ’90s child with a softer film that explores love, friendship, and the people who saved him.
Amir Ganjavie, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What is your relationship with the ’90s? I ask because in your movies the ’90s seem like a never ending time. In your movie there is a very melancholy feeling about this.
Xavier Dolan (XD): I think that’s true. These films are rooted in my experience as a ’90s child and the songs, the textures, the sounds might make you think about the ’90s but they’re all you know. What really defines the time in which we live are basically uglier clothes and more moderate phones so they all have iPhones and drive round cars so we’re officially in the 2000s and not in the ’90s. The sounds might bring you back there but the movie is based in today.
MM: Do you agree that this movie is the story of two kids who become adults?
XD: Well I guess the presence of a child always creates the atmosphere in my films of characters looking to their childhoods and feeling nostalgic. I don’t think it’s something that really exists here apart from the part where he finds the drawing that Matthias wants.
MM: About screenwriting, do you talk about your real feelings with your friends?
XD: With some friends, yes. What matters to me is what you can feel underneath people’s words. The movie is loquacious but what really matters is how they look at each other in between every word and what you can understand in between the lines. I feel like what really matters to me most in Matthias & Maxime, at least when I edited the film, was how people look at each other and how our stares and sounds mean much more than what we say. It’s what lies underneath that informs how the characters really feel. The moments when I’ve been really honest about my feelings were in my twenties with some friends. The times when I’ve tried to be honest about my feelings and talked about them have not necessarily been the moments that really defined friendships or taught me more about myself. We don’t always talk about how we feel. We show it. Our actions reveal how we feel. I’m not a fan of characters who say everything. I like when they hide themselves.
MM: This film is sort of saying that you have changed. Is that true?
XD: No, I don’t know if I’ve changed. I wanted to make it a different film. I wanted to make a movie about friendship and my friends because they’ve saved me and they brought me to safety in past years. They’ve made me discover what it is to be surrounded by a group that makes you feel safe and then makes you feel like they understand you. I could never have made that film before because I didn’t know what friendship was, which is why I make it now. Now, I don’t know if I’ve changed. I couldn’t tell you. I know that I wanted to make it a different film. I know that I wanted to make a film where the camera would be more athletic and more dynamic but also less preeminent and less flamboyant, less calculated, more humane, more focused on the characters. I knew that I wanted to have a softer film, more tender, slower, with a different use of music, a different use of feelings. I’ve had characters scream at each other about how they feel about each other. This time I wanted things to be more mysterious. I wanted it to be silent and muted until they explode. But I don’t know if I’ve changed. Maybe I’ve changed but I don’t know if my work has, you know. This is just one film.
MM: I’m just curious if you decided to suggest here that your sexual orientation is just a decision, a hazard. You could change it.
XD: I guess so. I mean, you could theoretically change it. Can you yourself? That’s the question. Can you allow yourself to change when you’re 28, 29, or 30 and think that you’d settle it for yourself that you are straight or gay and that you think you know yourself? And then suddenly something happens that redefines all the notions you have about masculinity and sexuality. No one in this film is judging anyone—not the mothers, not the friends, not anyone. The idea of that short film is the two of them kissing but it is a problem for them, especially for Matthias.
MM: Sometimes the film makes me think that it’s exactly in the fighting scenes that you show your real love for somebody. It’s just a strange thing, you know.
XD: Yeah, over the past ten years I’ve had characters love each other but also fight each other and for me screams or tears or shouts are not a sign of hatred—they are sign of passion. I find that the group of young men can call each other names and yell at each other or mock each other but still very much love each other.
MM: This film feels extremely sensual. Is this something that you just sort of naturally have in you when you’re able to evoke that feeling, that atmosphere, that sort of acting? Or is it something that you think about, the sort of goal to have a movie that is making you feel things but is far from just being an intellectual film?
XD: I don’t find a lot of pleasure in watching austere movies or movies that feel too intellectual. I like them, but I like to feel things when I watch movies. I know that there’s a trend of a lot of people liking to feel nothing and that movies which are restrained and colder and that have no exuberance or feelings are needed and are more successful with a certain crowd of journalists. I’ve understood that over the past years. I enjoy them too, but I expect films to move me in all kinds of ways, whether it is intellectually, in a heartfelt way, in a sexual way, or sensually. I think we were aware of the fact that the movie would be very sexually tense. You unconsciously want them to kiss, to at least solve their problem and talk about it.
MM: I was disappointed when they didn’t have sex.
XD: That’s not really what the film is about. It’s not about homosexuality. It’s about romance. Can you love someone when you’ve never loved a member of their sex in your entire life? The point was to build the sort of tension and then bring relief to that and release the tension when they find each other again later in the film and finally kiss and hug and forgive each other. We wanted to make a film that was sensual and did everything that we could in order to make it sensual in the way that it was filmed. We thought of that in the ways that they looked at each other and in their sounds, stares, and touches.
MM: Why did you call your main character Matthias?
XD: Matthias and Maxime are names from different milieus, I would say. You don’t call your son Matthias. It’s a name that is a little less common among the working class. Maxime is from the working class and Matthias is from a wealthier family. I also wanted them to have similar names but with different sounds.
MM: How do you decide what good acting is? What is good acting for you?
XD: Good acting for me is what convinces me and what touches me. Good acting is also creative acting. I love actresses with ideas and all of my friends who are in this film are very creative. I knew that working with them would be satisfying.
MM: What is it like to act in something that you’re directing? How do you work through that?
XD: I am able to really hate what I do or to accept and love what I do. A lot of actresses can’t look at themselves while they’re shooting. I don’t have that problem. I need to know what I look like and I need to know what I’m doing and how the light comes in and how I place myself in the space we’re creating. There’s losing yourself and trying to forget about all of this but there’s also a part of you that needs to remember everything that’s around you. We shoot on 35 rulers so we don’t have those big HD monitors but I can still look at the frame and see how we are evolving in that space, as much as I’m trying to forget about that. The only freedom and possibility that I have of being spontaneous is in not knowing what the other actor with me will do. The rest is accurate and controlled. I don’t find that to be difficult. I find it difficult to go into more fragile places inside of myself from an emotional point of view. I find it hard to cry and to be moved but I find it more and more possible every day. Every movie becomes easier and easier but it’s hard for me to go there. Otherwise, I love acting and I don’t find it challenging to act and direct at the same time. I’m more than happy to act for other people and I would prefer to be at the service of other artists, other directors, but there have got to be opportunities. If they don’t come, I need to act.
MM: Can I ask you about this American character? He personified this kind of old right coconuts.
XD: He’s basically just a guy who wants to get blown by another man. I felt the need to address the idea that he sounds so manly and confident. The movie talks about toxic notions of masculinity so he also brings that to the table. In the end, he realizes that he has the same problem as the other protagonists, feeling troubled by another man. What I mean by that is basically that not all old white men are gay. MM
Matthias and Maxime premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 22nd, courtesy of Les Films Séville.