The latest from Canadian arthouse wunderkind Xavier Dolan is the story of two men and one kiss. The men are Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), a rising star lawyer who is starting to question whether his fast-track career is taking him in the right direction, and Maxime (Dolan), a carer for his addict mother who is about to leave behind a life that has rather stalled in Montreal to make a new start in Australia. The kiss is scripted – the pair find themselves roped into a student film by the insufferable younger sister of a friend. But the emotions it unlocks are real and perplexing, skewing the balance of a friendship that has threaded together the lives of both since they were children.
Matthias & Maxime is recognisably the work of Dolan, who at 31 has crammed a lot of Quebecois melodrama into a relatively short career. His trademark flourishes are very much in evidence: the high-octane onslaught of dialogue, the dominant mothers and invisible fathers, the speeded up montages – his sly way of taking the most hackneyed of all cinema devices and giving it a punky, irreverent energy – and slick changes of aspect ratio (more on which later). But there is also a tonal shift here. The strident, splintering bitterness of some of Dolan’s earlier films (Mommy; It’s Only the End of the World) is replaced by a softer, enveloping melancholy. It’s not exactly gentle in approach – Dolan’s film-making has always been the kind that snaps and bares its teeth – but it’s more forgiving, perhaps, of the flaws in his characters.
One of Dolan’s great gifts as a film-maker is the way he captures the dynamics of discord. The camera latches on to every sniping side eye, every cheap dig that finds its target. There is love lurking in his families, but that doesn’t stop warring siblings and sparring mothers and sons tearing each other apart from the inside out. A combative quality within the wider group of friends around Matthias and Maxime highlights the easygoing, instinctive relationship between the two.
There’s a lovely shot early on: Matt and Max are framed in a lit window as they companionably work their way through the washing up, their heads bent together in a small, glowing square in the centre of the frame. It feels almost jarring when another character wanders into the shot. Later on, Dolan employs one of his aspect ratio shifts – the frame stretches like a lovestruck pupil dilating – and places the friends at opposite sides of the widest of widescreen shots. Between them is an endless expanse of beige sofa and a lifetime of unspoken words.
These playful frame changes mirror the shifting focus of the film: it’s an intimate portrait of two men who can’t quite bring themselves to admit that their relationship might be more than platonic, but it also has a broader generational scope. These are lives at a turning point: carry on and become their parents (in one of the film’s cruder elements, Dolan includes a grotesque, cackling band of moneyed older women as a cautionary Greek chorus), or plough a fresh furrow.
Ultimately, the revelation here is not so much Dolan’s more contemplative approach to film-making, but the subtlety and sensitivity of his performance. Max is sharp and witty, but lacks something of the invincible alpha-bro confidence of his buddies – certainly there’s a vulnerability here that is not evident in D’Almeida Freitas’s more erratic turn as the deeply confused Matt. Dolan doesn’t overplay Max’s diffidence but he does, in a couple of tremendous scenes, lay bare his easily bruised soul to wrenching effect.