I Killed My Mother Reframes The Coming-Of-Age Template Through A Growing-Apart Lens

The film becomes both a dream of return and revival, as well as a nightmare of being trapped in a circumstance of communication breakdown
I Killed My Mother Reframes The Coming-Of-Age Template Through A Growing-Apart Lens

Watching Xavier Dolan’s debut, I Killed My Mother, for the first time at nineteen ( coincidentally the age at which he made it), had sparked an intense series of feelings, deeply entwined with how I looked at the relationship with my parents, friends, a nascent, curious sexuality. The timing was miraculous, affording me a belated sense of release and a vocabulary with which I could navigate a stage, a precise intermediary phase in my life, a year into college life and being in a city.

The film disguises itself as an exploration premised on the template of teenage angst and the classic mother-son narrative riven by friction. The tussle is a constant hovering presence in the dynamic that the sixteen-year-old Hubert and his mother, Chantale, share. They get into messy, heated clashes, tipping over into physical scuffles, which Dolan stages often in kitchens and the car that the mother uses to drive him around. The mother and son cannot have a conversation end without lunging for each other’s throats; the most harmless dining table talk quickly spirals into a minefield of ferociously nurtured resentments, neither of them able to control themselves before levying a volley of insults and hurtful tirades at each other. But notice how Dolan handles these mostly hesitantly initiated chats that are always on the precipice of utter breakdown. The scenes see saw between violent spite and a compensatory gesture and utterance of validation when Hubert feels he has hit too raw a nerve and cut her too deeper. Hubert never flinches from telling her that he was born to the wrong mother, yet when he elaborates on it and senses a shade of being utterly betrayed and defeated flit over his mother’s face, he retreats and profusely apologises and compliments her on the food she has made. Anne Dorval meticulously conveys the heartbreak of Chantale, a single mother receiving a lacerating rejection from a son who she is trying with her all might and means to raise.

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Hubert’s retreats into passivity once he feels he has been too brutal are an acknowledgement of the unrelenting circumstances she is in, a desperate bid to make amends and tacitly tell her that he understands that he could be a handful and that he knows she is trying her best. This back and forth between all-out fusillade he launches and the quick affirmation he nervously drops on her echo the slippery nature of the exchanges between my mother and I. The sharp hairpin bends at which our chats tail off from passive aggressiveness into a wan, crestfallen acceptance of the damaging, bruising things we have said to each other. I surrender to the overbearing situation she has to negotiate before she can deal with my issues reagarding her domineering impulses of hijacking any space that I could dream of harbouring. Her need for control that she exerts with iron force curtailed the the ambit within which I could function and my dreams of what I wish to accomplish.

She bestows a microscopic, scrutinizing attention to the way I chose to conduct my routine, go about a regular day of classes or a weekend away with friends. I understand her fears but also the sites where they stemmed from. This granular awareness can assume its own shape of guiding, orienting one’s other relationships, casting them anew in the wake of the harrowing emotional troughs she often undergoes with my father. In Hubert, I felt a kinship of this knowing, an affective alliance forged through the keening reflex of retraction, a withdrawing of our fangs at the peak of an argument offering a profoundly felt familiarity.

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Chantale and Hubert’s relationship is shadowed by the bittersweet remembrance of a past, when they had been close before his father left, shirking all parenting duties. Through the device of Hubert’s black-and-white intimate video confessionals, the narrative shifts from the everyday grouses he has toward her to a space of introspection, reckoning, careful consideration of why their relationship has gotten so soured, the burden of expectations imposed upon his mother that pushed her to a marriage and having a child, things she might not have been ready for or willing to embrace.

These brooding interludes never stretch into navel gazing, because of the shattering honesty and self-awareness with which both the filmic protagonist and director, obviously undertaking a personal excavation of sorts with the film, approach to the roots of both mutual bitterness and repressed tide of affection that amplifies the former’s escalating intensity. Hubert conceals the occasionally surfacing desire for a return to what Dolan frames as a sort of arcadian past of bliss, when he was a child, before his father left. He riffles through his childhood album but is careful enough not to be seen indulging in such acts of remembrance by his mother. His mother also mourns the end of their past intimacy and wistfully pines for those days , not in his presence however.

“Everything disappeared, now he only criticises me for everything I do, all trips taken together are erased...”

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Hubert searches for handing his mother some tokens of solace and kindness, these stray, sudden words where he expresses his love to her landing on the viewer with an aching jolt. He tells her he loves her so that she does not forget it amidst the flurry of verbal violence that continually ricochets between them. His scant but open declaration of love, he hopes, is what she should retain as balm against the wounds, scathing and unsparing, he inflicts on her. Dolan transposes the strain this relationship against all other relationships Hubert has, particularly with his boyfriend, Antonin. Contrasts are established between the relaxed ease of Antonin’s bond with his mother, their rapport over a bohemian lifestyle and his tortured one with Chantale. He observes his friend’s dynamic with his mother with a tinge of sadness and a discernible envy.

Dolan, however, is too skilled a storyteller to lapse into mere envy or nostalgia flecking the present constantly; he problematizes the coming of age genre with existential questions undergirding the restoration of voice to both offended parties, both striving to reach a space of understanding and empathy with desperation but failing, tragically aware that the chasm between the two has widened too much by that point. There are affected sequences of burlesque fantasy , aestheticized tableau of objects and fruits, slow motion and sped up sequences of disgust, loathing and joy. The film is mounted permanently from Hubert’s perspective; only once, does Dolan concede space to the mother for a solo rant with a complete litany of her rage. Therefore, the granting of voice is skewed towards the son, but Dolan recognises how the two misjudge the other owing to unacknowledged traumas of a father deserting them, the immensity of immediate duties being unloaded atop the mother, the choking of the son’s space of movement.

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He probes each of these layers, in an eventual pursuit of that arcadian past, materialising as a grown-up Hubert chasing his mother in a bridal gown across the forest of his childhood, set to a gorgeously plaintive Surface of Atlantic track. The film becomes both a dream of return and revival, as well as a nightmare of being trapped in a circumstance of communication breakdown, but always gestures to growth and maturity not as inevitable rites of passage, but positioning them as fundamental for the staking out of individuality. There is a slowly accruing loneliness at the heart of the film, that trickles into Hubert’s relationship with his boyfriend that Dolan depicts as one loosely, playfully blending friendship and romance into a bond that repudiates any hasty urges to slot the film as a queer coming-of age-tale. 

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