Xavier Dolan's mother must feel very proud of him, and possibly a little wary. A busy child actor in Quebec, Dolan amassed a small fortune and, when he reached the age of majority, immediately spent $150,000 of his earnings to finance I Killed My Mother, his first feature film as writer-director. A semiautobiographical story about a closeted gay teenager (Dolan) locked in a battle of wills with his steely divorced mom (Anne Dorval), the movie drew a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival in 2009 and collected enthusiastic reviews when it was released in Europe and the U.S. Five years and four features later, Dolan was back at Cannes to claim a Jury Prize for Mommy, another tale of a teenage son and mother in a fight to the death. No one could call the movie a rehash, though, because Dolan's take on the pain and pleasure of maternity had deepened significantly over those five years.
Tom at the Farm (2013), which preceded Mommy, screened here last September as part of Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival but is only now getting a limited U.S. release. For the first time in his filmmaking career Dolan worked with someone else's source material, collaborating with Michel Marc Bouchard to adapt his play, yet there's the same strong maternal will snaking through the story. Dolan—who has starred in all his own films except Mommy—plays the title character, a gay man who travels out to the country for the family funeral of his love, who has just died. Staying with the dead man's grieving mother, Tom keeps silent about the gay romance, and her other grown son strong-arms Tom into feeding her comforting lies about the deceased. As in Dolan's own stories, a mother's hunger for her children encompasses both loving and devouring them.
People in their late teens are completely without pity, which is why Dolan was able to draw such an incisive portrait of his own mom in I Killed My Mother. There's none of the usual gratitude an older writer might express for a parent raising a child alone: Chantale Lemming (Anne Dorval) is hard, capricious, and prone to ultimatums. Her arguments with her son, Hubert, begin as matters of motherly discipline but end up dwelling on her hurt feelings; when they reach an impasse, she dares him to go live with his father. After Hubert flippantly tells one of his teachers that his mother is dead and word gets back to Chantale, she storms into Hubert's classroom in a fur hat and leopard-skin jacket. Later, when Hubert tarries too long at a video store, she makes another public scene. "She wasn't made to be a mother," Hubert observes in the black-and-white direct-address shots that punctuate the movie. "She got married and had a kid because that's what everyone expected of her."
I Killed My Mother shows an insight beyond the filmmaker's years, revealing how a woman's fierce love for her child can curdle into rage and resentment when that child pulls away. "He used to tell me everything," Chantale confides to a friend. "Now I'm criticized for everything I say. Every word, every move is wrong. It's as if everything was erased. Our special moments, our trips." Chantale has already figured out that Hubert is gay and aches for what he'll go through in life, though he prefers to go through it alone. His secret has divided them, and I Killed My Mother is honest about the possibility that their relationship may never recover. "I could never stand my father," one of Hubert's teachers tells him. "People think that with time, you start loving your parents and things work out. But we haven't spoken in ten years."
Hubert is 16, and you have to wonder whether another decade in the closet might turn him into the 25-year-old man, never named, whose accidental death, never specified, sets in motion the events of Tom at the Farm. Agathe (Lise Roy), his hauntingly bereaved mother, latches on to Tom all the more because her son stayed so far out of her reach. "Don't you tell you're leaving tomorrow," Agathe admonishes Tom. "He always said that. You'll stay." Tom soon realizes that he's been pulled into a fiction; menacing him in his bed that night is the other son, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who immediately pegs Tom as a con man and orders him to deliver a soothing eulogy at the funeral the next day, for his mother's sake, before getting out of town. "If you speak, they'll know my son was a good boy," Agathe explains to Tom, exposing both her own heartbreak and the social rigidity that estranged mother and son.
Like Chantale in the earlier movie, Agathe inspires a mixture of empathy and fear; her stymied love for her child has turned her into something quietly awful. She pumps Tom for details about her son, especially the girlfriend he supposedly had, who never turned up for the funeral. Wanting to hate this woman, Agathe hangs on Tom's every word, and he begins to fill in this fictitious straight romance with memories of his own gay one. Eventually her frustration boils over: "Why did my son stop visiting?" she demands to know. "Why didn't he call or write anymore? What kind of accident was it? Who was he with? How did it happen? Where? When? No one dies at 25! No one!" But any sympathy for Agathe is tempered by her contemptuous attitude and shocking flashes of rage toward Francis, which hint at a darker family history.
Tom at the Farm takes more than a few narrative left turns, and Dolan has trouble striking the right balance between family psychodrama and twisty suspense plot. Yet the movie's premise must have primed him for Mommy, his subsequent feature and his best to date. Anne Dorval, who played Chantale in I Killed My Mother, returns as Diane, a brash widow who takes custody of her incorrigibly rude and violent son from a mental institution but gradually realizes that no amount of maternal love or support will empower him to function on the outside. Like the dead son in Tom, the obnoxious Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is something of an enigma, having retreated so far into his own feelings that no one can deal with him. At first Diane tries to embrace and validate his every antisocial impulse, but by the end of the movie the same truth has reasserted itself: you can give a child life, but that's no guarantee that he'll want to share it with you. v