Matthias & Maxime (Matthias et Maxime)

Canada (2019) Dir. Xavier Dolan

Friendships that last are really special, not that I would know. When people can remain close from childhood through to adulthood and beyond, it is a remarkable achievement. But, as we grow up and times change, there will always be something to put that bond to the test.

On the cusp of turning 30, having spent most of his life looking after his alcoholic mother Manon (Anne Dorval), Maxime aka Max (Xavier Dolan) decides to make a huge change in his life and emigrate to Australia. A few weeks before he leaves, Maxime has a weekend away with his childhood friends, which includes Matthias aka Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), his oldest and closest friend.  

Joining the party is Erika (Camille Felton), the unpopular younger sister of Rivette (Pier-Luc Funk), needing two actors for a scene to complete her student film. Max is happy to volunteer whilst Matt loses a bet to take the other role. However, they learn they are to kiss, and are teased by the others about this. The scene is performed as asked, but afterwards, things are not the same between Max and Matt as they question their sexuality.

There might be something personally allegorical about the latest film from Xavier Dolan, the prodigious French-Canadian darling of arthouse cinema since his debut in 2009 when he was still only 20 years old. Now a Cannes winning veteran at 31, Dolan has ridden the wave of huge critical and commercial success and disappointment, with his last film slaughtered by critics, thus not given a full international release.

Matthias & Maxime might be about two men examining their sexuality, but it is not hard to see parallels between Max and Dolan himself. To wit – he turns 30 after making a flop film, wonders where to go next, so he makes a return to the style of his earlier films to give his career a restart. Compare this to Max rebooting his life by moving to Australia, the allusion may be tenuous and subtle but is there.

Questioning sexuality is a recurring Dolan theme, as is the relationship between son and mother, both at the centre of this film. The difference this time is in how less angsty and tortured the tone is; Dolan’s debut I Killed My Mother saw him screaming bile and hateful things at his mother, and whilst there is some screaming here, it is not out of petulance or malice but coming from a tired, unappreciated son fighting an uphill battle against his addict mother.

Even the awkwardness and tension between Max and Matt isn’t as fraught as might expect it to be, missing the selfishness and vanity of Dolan’s character in his second film Heartbeats, leaving seasoned viewers of Dolan to pay less attention to the retread plot and instead notice the erstwhile enfant terrible of modern world cinema seems to have matured and mellowed with age. This isn’t to extrapolate the notion Dolan has already turned into a geriatric in keeping with being such a precociously sublime filmmaker from an early age, he just knows how to handle this issues with more finesse.

With nothing implicitly or explicitly hinted, the audience will pick up a whiff of hypocrisy in the group teasing of Max and Matt for having to kiss for the camera – something it is suggested happened before at junior school – as the entire group emit vibes of having a few Pride marches under their belts. If Dolan was trying to create a hetero lad’s party atmosphere, maybe he needs to hang out with a few more of his hetero friends first.

But this is irrelevant to the main plot; after the kiss, Matt is confused; his head is not focused on a beckoning promotion as a corporate lawyer, and girlfriend Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay) is dropping hints about marriage. Unlike working class Max, Matt comes from an affluent background where appearances and status are everything. One of Matt’s duties it to look after American interloper McAfee (Harris Dickinson), a typical party dude wanting to visit strip clubs and places Max and the others would never go.

Unable to think straight (pun not intended), Matt fumbles embarrassingly through a speech at a farewell dinner, causes a fight at the after party, and even jeopardises his relationship with Sarah. Max is the less concerned about the kiss, implying comfort with his sexual orientation, and more torn up at trying to get help for his stubborn mother who throws every attempt back in his face.

Again, Dolan manages to navigate all of this without the histrionics of his earlier films, putting Max in a position of making a sacrifice for Matt’s own good rather than selfishly forcing him to lean his way. We can take from this many interpretations – whether it is a reflection of Dolans own maturity, or he is creating a less predatory gay protagonist to buck the stereotypical depiction pervasive in cinema.

Similarly, the visual presentation isn’t bogged down with the pretentious flourishes Dolan is noted for like changing picture ratios, and incongruous music video like sequences to drag out the run time. Shot composition and framing remains something Dolan likes to subvert but on the whole, he keeps things mostly straightforward, allowing himself some fun for party scenes and the like.

For the first time since 2013 Dolan directs himself, turning in arguably his least affected performance to date, the only real stigma against Max being the huge red birthmark on his face. TV actor Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas makes his big screen debut, boasting hunky looks and quiet despair required to make Matt more than a flimsy totem. And of course, Anne Dorval plays Dolan’s mum again in a terrifying turn.

The consensus may be Matthias & Maxime is a return to form for Dolan but for me, whilst it is a better film than his recent efforts, it is more a step in the right direction towards that return to form.