Interview : Xavier Dolan
Two years after the success of Mommy, the young Canadian prodigy – currently the face of Louis Vuitton – is back with Juste la fin du monde.
Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde is uncontestably one of the biggest events in the francophone movie business this year. Following up on his first film – J’ai tué ma mère, which he made in 2009 at the tender age of 20 – the Canadian author-director proved he was no fluke with Les Amours imaginaires, before wowing critics with Laurence Anyways and then Mommy, which won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. But his most recent feature film, which won this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes, is also eagerly awaited by the fans of its stars: Marion Cotillard, Gaspard Ulliel, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Nathalie Baye.
Adapted from the play of the same name by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Juste la fin du monde tells the story of a young HIV-positive man – played by Gaspard Ulliel – who returns home to announce his forthcoming death to his family. The press wasn’t tender at Cannes and, apart from a few rare exceptions, panned the film. French daily Libération, for example, in a piece by Julien Gester and Didier Péron, declared that the movie was a cross “between bad theatre and an over-the-top music video,” before going on to stigmatize its “vanity” and “power display.” Certainly the border between lyricism and pomposity is a fine one, and not everyone will manage to pull it off with the same flair as Minnelli in Some Came Running or Cassavetes in Love Streams. “The fact is that since the first film I’ve always read the scathing and violent reviews, the ones that are hard for the ego. I always sought to find in these pieces an apprentice- ship, a message,” confides Dolan, in between takes for his next film. “Some criticisms are pertinent and despite their crudeness comprise very clear ideas and very inspiring analyses of what people see. Critics and audiences, when they talk about a film, say what they’ve seen in what we, to start out with, saw for them. A film that’s entirely misunderstood is very rare, I think. So when people say black, and I say white, when they say long, while I thought slow, I know that there’s room for improvement, for analysis. What’s important for me is to feel that with each film I do I’m becoming both a better director and a better human being.”
Adapting a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, one of the most original dramatists of his generation, who was struck down by AIDS at the age of 38, was a risky bet. And Dolan acknowledges that his treatment was greeted by “a sort of benevolent scepticism mixed with apprehen- sion. The doubt came from my friends especially. Anne [Dorval], in particular, Serge Denoncourt or Pierre Bernard, who were all in the play when it was staged in Montreal in 2001. Anne had urged me to read it, saying it was made to measure for me, but she wondered about the feasibility of the adaptation... ‘How will you preserve Lagarce’s language?’, she asked. ‘It’s what makes his text pertinent and unique, but at the same time the language isn’t cinematic... And if you lose it, what’s the point of adapting Lagarce?’ But I didn’t want to lose it. On the contrary, the challenge for me was to keep it as intact as possible. The themes dealt with by Lagarce, the characters’ emotions, whether shouted or muzzled, their imperfec- tions, their loneliness, their torments, their inferiority complexes... All of that was familiar to me, and would probably be familiar to most of us. But the language... That was something new for me. Foreign. Riddled with awkwardnesses, repetitions, hesitations, grammatical errors... Where a contemporary writer would straight away have eliminated the superfluousness and the repetition, Lagarce kept them, and celebrated them. The characters, nervous and timid, swim in a sea of words that is so agitated that each look, each sigh slipped in between the lines becomes a moment of calm in which the actors suspend time. I wanted these words of Lagarce’s to be said the way he had written them. Without compromise. It’s this language that is his heritage, and it’s through his language that his work found its pos- terity. Watering it down would have made Lagarce banal. Whether or not you ‘feel’ the theatre in a film doesn’t bother me much... Don’t they both need each other anyway? I’m very happy with the actors in the film, who threw themselves into it with generosity and intensity. It was a really overwhelming immersion in a constricted space and a changeable climate – the severe and disciplined language that is Lagarce’s – which they had to make their own. But they were all brilliant, each in their own way. I loved the maternal side of Nathalie Baye, so shrill and yet ten- der, the openness and sensitivity of Gaspard Ulliel, and the liquid gaze of Marion Cotillard, who’s all self-ef- faced softness in this story. She was appearing in Joan of Arc at the Stake at New York’s Metropolitan Opera at the same time, but she knew her lines inside out, which meant we could improvise, construct and go so much further than the initial proposi- tion, on paper, of a script without an actor. The actors’ freedom was fan- tastic, by there’s no greater freedom, as I see it, than fully understanding and mastering a text so as to be, in the end, entirely free to create a character, rather than just imposing the personality one has, without creating anything.”
At 27, and even though he’s never seemed to lack them, Dolan has gained in confidence and humour, confiding, for example, that he’s not wearing anything under the grey jogging shorts in which, on this early July day, he’s filming The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, an English- language film with a whole galaxy of international stars: Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain and the singer Adele (for whose worldwide hit Hello Dolan directed the video). His new feature film will be about “the crisis of gender, diversity and identity that has always been brewing in Hollywood. We talk about ethnic and LGBT minorities, and words like ‘whites’ and ‘heteronormative’ are very much in vogue, but really, will the studios change their standards and their infrastructures to celebrate diversity when their most faithful audiences don’t want it on their screens? John F. Donovan tackles the complexity of being a ce- lebrity or, more precisely, a famous actor, and of being able, with integrity, to live both one’s life and one’s dreams. Are they both possible simultaneously?”
The young and rather thin-skinned director, who is proud of his Egyptian roots, seems to need as much to be loved as to control everything. He writes all the press releases for his films himself, and, authentic auteur that he is, gets involved in the music, the sets and the costumes, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Which isn’t really surprising when you consider his background. The son of an actor, Dolan was starring in TV adverts and films from the age of four, and dubbed countless feature films, including all the Harry Potters, before writing the cathartic J’ai tué ma mère, which he financed with his teenage savings. If he continues to work in dubbing, it’s because “it’s a training for an actor, an extraordinary laboratory. The wings, behind the scenes, watching and rewatching an actor playing a shot, noticing his ticks and trouvailles, his talent and mistakes. Observing and studying so as to produce a performance for a film of which you’re neither the author nor the star, but like an artist you go into a dark studio, with the humble mission of telling a story to a monolingual audience, as well as you possibly can, without any unneccessary initiative, without any pretention, anonymously. It’s technical, but it’s a demanding and exciting gymnastic exercise. Dubbing is one of the only forms of acting that’s still open to me, and over time it’s become a marker, a space in which I can practise and charge my batteries in peace, far from the hullabaloo of the outside world.”
His precociousness and the stylistic inventiveness of his first films earned him comparisons with the young Spike Lee; his effusive sensitivity, and his camp and melodramatic aesthetic, evoke Almodóvar; as for his Stakhanovism, he makes you think of the late Fassbinder and of the still active Woody Allen. Will his life be incandescent and brief like the former’s, or long and prolific like the latter’s? “It’s already hard enough for me to get myself from the shower in the morning into the taxi without forgetting my wallet and my head in the sink... So a view of my life in the long term is a concept that’s as abstract as it’s improbable. The desire to make a film comes from an encounter, a detail, a song, a story you hear and that you make your own. So I think that as long as I’m in touch with the outside world – the arts, people, my family and friends – ideas and films will come all by themselves. I just hope that life will be kind enough to stop me turning in on myself, or closing myself off from the world which inspires and improves us. I think that when an artist no longer has a vision or anything to say, it’s because he’s only looking at himself and listening to himself talk.”
And then there’s the mystery of his private life, which astonishingly isn’t at all reported by the tabloid press, usually so prompt to track every tiny detail of film stars’ relationships. Dolan refuses to say if there’s anyone in his life, or even where he’ll spend his holidays, as if the fact of having always been an actor had reduced him to being nothing more than a public persona. “I think I probably ‘directed’ a few things in my life,” he continues. “Certain artistic choices, certain professional episodes, decisions, turning points that you go through feeling the same sort of emotion you would in a film, with all the intensity of movie characters. But I don’t act in front of my friends, except to make them laugh. The ‘I love yous’ and the crises are always deeply felt – sometimes too deeply moreover. I lie about a multitude of insignificant things, but I never lie about the love I feel for a friend, or the sadness I might feel.” Asked if he ever thinks about death, Dolan replies, “All the time. I’m terrified of not having done all the films, and told all the stories that are in me, met all the actors and artists that I admire, and who make life complete and unpredictable.”
“Juste La Fin du Monde”, currently in theaters.
By David Manero.