So many of Canadian director Xavier Dolan's films feature characters who blurt out every ugly thought they have, that Matthias & Maxime (2019) feels like an anomaly — characters who, for once, can't tell each other what's really on their mind. The tender romance revolves around longtime best friends Matthias (Gabriel D'Almeida) and Maxime (Dolan), who star in a friend's short film that requires them to kiss. The scene is fleeting but its aftereffects ripple through the rest of the film. Maxime is unperturbed, Matthias much less so. Like any character in a Dolan film, his neatly compartmentalized identity is thrown into disarray.
"Everything comes from a personal place, always, for me. Doesn't mean I've lived it myself. But if I've seen it, or heard of it, and have mixed it up with a bit of my own life or my own notes on characters and people, then, it's personal," says Dolan from Montréal. "Even the things I think I completely imagine come, in some way from real life. A word, a grin, a smile, a curtain in some window, it's all personal."
He spoke about the film, now streaming on Mubi, why love and anger are so intertwined for him and what he wishes people would recognize about his work:
How have you been doing? Has the pandemic and isolation given you a chance to work in peace or has it been a stressful time?
A bit of both. I've written a show, and felt quite inspired during isolation. But I wonder when I'll be able to work again — with absolute latitude and agency — and when things will start being better. I feel privileged and I'm not complaining but I've been stressed because of my asthma. The virus doesn't seem to go kindly on people with respiratory dysfunctions.
You've said that the theme of your films is impossible love. Does the impossibility in Matthias & Maxime stem from Matthias' internal struggle with what he wants and the desire to keep his marriage intact, or is it symptomatic of societal standards of masculinity that enforce certain rigid codes of behaviour?
The question feels like it encompasses my answer! It's both. Something in Matthias seems to be holding him back in expressing a new kind of love for a friend, but what holds him back might as well be, more than a profound incapability, principles a masculinist society has inoculated men with, such as the idea that real men must behave a certain way, walk, talk a certain way, and, most certainly, love a certain gender.
Tell me about Maxime's birthmark. Matthias' cruel remark about it is a shifting point in their relationship, but were there other reasons for this choice of distinctive facial feature?
I love birthmarks, and I think they tell you a lot about someone before they do anything or say anything. In Maxime's case, I think we all visualize and imagine the mockery, the hazing in high school, the hazing throughout his entire life, actually. I just liked that it gave context and colour to his existence without having to say anything.
I can't remember seeing a more romantic onscreen kiss in the recent past. Could you walk me through what went into the scene?
Thank you. Perhaps it was one of the only scenes we wanted to produce in a more calculated way? The rest of the film is quite realistic in its approach, its style, its appearance, compared to what I generally do. But the set for that scene, its lighting, its stormy weather, the polyethylene sheets in the windows, all came from a desire to make the moment feel more special, more oneiric, in a way.
The film evokes such a sense of nostalgia, with references to Good Will Hunting, Dazed and Confused and Harry Potter. You've said before this nostalgia is for a childhood you didn't end up having. When you did discover these movies, what impact did they have on you?
I discovered them at different ages. I think they all provided me with a different angle on life — a certain way of seeing and feeling, and living it. Which is why I love and embrace tones colliding and entwining in my films. For me, things can't just be simple and one-way only. They've got to have contrast, contradictions. They can feel dreadful and austere for a scene and more magical and lively in another. It's a matter of balance of course and dosing things, but I love to travel from one world to another within one story. For me, that's the way life is anyway.
One of the characters in the film says, 'They fight but they love each other.' I feel like that's a recurring theme in your filmography — characters who love each other and still yell awful things at each other in anger. Why are the two emotions so intertwined for you?
Because it's never black or white. Aren't films about problems we solve? Painful situations, to any level, that we try to remedy? I love to find beauty in ugliness rather than the other way around. It's funnier, deeper, richer, and so much more rewarding. I don't care for perfect people saying perfect things in a perfect way. I get that people can feel irritated by anger, noise and shouting. But to me they're normal and always come from a place of pain all the same. I think it was Renoir who said, 'I love to paint the flowers on the bouquet's messier side.'
While writing these fights in which characters blurt out the cruelest thoughts they have about the other person and end up resorting to physical violence, how do you find the rhythm and how far to push it?
I think we all have limits. And characters are based on who we are or people we know. It's always about connecting their reactions, their own limits to something relatable and real. So I write what I feel I need to in order to take the action where I want it to go, but I try not to lose touch with reality, and real people.
You've said that people usually recognize mothers and homosexuality as themes in your films, but we all have mothers and your films aren't 'gay films', they're life. What do you wish people would recognize about your films instead?
That they're just about people living stories.