There is a moment in Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime, when Pier-Luc Funk’s character Rivette (a close friend of the film’s lead duo) is playing the piano for his mother and her friends at her insistence. As he plays the women get distracted, talking with newcomers, and eventually, they all leave the room. Rivette slams his hands on the keyboard and asks out loud “Who am I playing for?”practically looking down the lens of the camera. It might be the most autobiographical moment in the whole film.
Xavier Dolan is back on familiar ground for his 8th film, a Quebec set drama of two childhood friends. Xavier’s recent films have all been about young men on the verge of changes. Tom at the Farm’s titular character was grieving a lover’s death, It’s Only the End of the World’s Louis was coming to terms with his own mortality, and The Life and Death of John F Donovan’s John was dealing with the onset of fame. In Matthias & Maxime, two life-long companions face the prospect of being on other sides of the globe, but more importantly, they are looking at their futures and deciding if it’s what they want.
Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) is tall and handsome, with a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend, and a corporate job on the rise. His best friend Maxime (Dolan) is a struggling bartender with a large birthmark on his right cheek that makes him feel self-conscious. Max, tired of spending his time caring for his mother in recovery (six months clean), has decided to move to Australia to start a new life, despite a rather poor grasp of English. While relaxing at a lake-house with their friends Matthias and Maxime are coaxed into kissing for a short film.
Dolan flirts with the gay cinema trope of best friends becoming lovers, but that’s not what this film is about. The intense soul-searching the kiss instigates isn’t necessarily about sexuality, but about loss and love, and how men deal with their emotional crises. Matthias lingers on the loss of an office pot-plant, but can’t face the loss of his friend, fighting with those around him and seeming to unconsciously find ways to hurt and distance Maxime. While Maxime tries to dance around the emotional landmines that surround him and understand what is going on with their friendship.
Rivette, one of their group of friends, is the only character defined as being ‘gay’ (sexual abiguity has always been a theme of Dolan’s work). Rivette’s younger sister chastises the older boys for their rigid labels, Dolan clearly enjoyed writing her, liberally poking fun at the next generation. The withdrawn Maxime seems to be closetted, while Matthias is tormented by the idea that his life may not be what he thought it was. Harris Dickinson (Postcards from London, Beach Rats) appears as a cocky American work associate who seems to agitate Matthias even more.
It will come as no surprise that there are no fathers in Dolan’s cinematic world, but a proliferation of mothers. Maxime’s mother is harsh and resentful, her son’s efforts to keep her clean are not appreciated. Matthias’ mother is loving to them both. With no male role-models the young men are figuring it out on their own.
As the countdown to Maxime’s departure gets closer, the friction intensifies, leading to an abrupt finale. As the credits rolled I wanted to shout at the projectionist to find the missing reel! Debate will rage about the last shot.
Eight films in, it’s impossible not to compare Dolan against his impressive oeuvre. For me, Matthias & Maxime doesn’t work quite as well as say Tom on the Farm or Mommy. Spiritually it has more in line with It’s Only the End of the World. After the critical lashings he received for The Life & Death of John F Donovan, Dolan has returned to his roots with a fresh outlook. The aforementioned piano scene feels as if Dolan is screaming at the critics (like his character Francis screamed at Nicholas at the end of Heartbeats). He tried playing what Hollywood wanted and they ignored him, so now he’s back playing music for himself.
By Chad Armstrong
Matthias & Maxime plays the 2019 BFI LFF.