Not quite 22, actor-auteur Xavier Dolan is Canada’s enfant terrible, bratty, brilliant, and recklessly gifted. To fans, he’s the next Van Sant, Almodóvar, or Wong Kar Wai; to haters, he’s their pale imitation. His aggressively stylized debut, I Killed My Mother, in which he played a pissy teenager with petty resentments who suffers grandiosely, won three awards in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. His most recent film, the even-more-gorgeous Heartbeats, about two friends’ (Dolan and Monia Chakri) halting attempts to bed a blond-locked Adonis, was promoted to the Cannes Un Certain Regard lineup last year, winning the youth prize. It premieres in limited release today and will be available on Video on Demand February 25. We spoke with Dolan about how he’s not a hipster and how (flipping the standard script) his immense early success as a director is just a side effect of his burning desire to act.
The Canadian film scene is very tight-knit, and filmmakers are often vying over the same small pool of national funding. Since you’ve been so successful, at such a young age, has there been blowback?
Sure, it happens a lot. Small pot. But I Killed My Mother, I paid for it myself, with family and friends giving me some love money, until I hit zero in my bank account. I just want to tell jealous people, you should just get up if you’re sitting on your ass waiting for the money … I don’t know. I just felt like I didn’t steal that — I don’t want to say I earned it, because I Killed My Mother was very irritating in moments and it was very amateur, so sometimes I feel really bad. But I can’t listen to anyone, whether it’s compliments or critics.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do?
Very late. I wrote I Killed My Mother and then thought, I’m going to play Hubert. I thought, no one else but me can play that. But then, if someone directs this film, they’re going to choose some kind of six-feet-tall hottie cutie-face that is popular and bankable, and I’m obviously not bankable. I’m no one. So I started directing just in order to act, and then discovered that I loved it.
I read an interview in which you said that you struck out in all your auditions.
It was irritating. Like, why is this kid getting the role? He’s not prettier. He’s not better. He’s not taller. Why him? What the fuck is going on? Why does no one want me to act? It’s my flame, it’s what I’m born to do. Six years, I didn’t act. Then I wrote myself a role, I won prizes all over the world. So what the fuck is wrong with casting directors? Let’s bash casting directors! Let’s bash them all!
Would you still take a break from making your own films? You’ve said you plan to make one a year.
Well, I would take these breaks if any scripts were sent. If the phone rang, I would. But people think I’m a control freak — that I’ll get on their set and say “I think you should put your camera here and the light is not correct.” I can shut the fuck up! I’m desperate for attention but I can give a director what he wants. I have no style, I have weird craft. I don’t belong to any schools, or clique, or ghetto. I’m like a virgin. I will do whatever people want me to do. I will bark naked and covered with shit for Michael Haneke if he wants me to. Directing, it’s great. But acting is just …
So you’d stop directing?
If people requested my participation! Then I would put my directing career on the ice. I could do this for two, three, maybe four years, and then maybe between two shootings I would just take my camera and shoot a little film, very hand-held, bullshit thing. I would abandon many things in order to be able to act again. But I think I’m never going to act again. I can feel it.
I don’t know! And I’m not a bad actor! And what I’m doing in my films is literally the minimum amount of attention I can invest in acting, because I’ve got to supervise the costumes, and the editing, and yes, the cinematography. At the same time, I’m not writing great roles for myself. I’m writing the second-violin dude. Anne Dorval is the role, in I Killed My Mother. Monia [Chokri] is the role in Heartbeats. I’m not going to go out and chew the goddamn scenery like a drama queen and be like “Oh, look at me, I can cry in two seconds like Meryl Streep.” She’s great, but I’m not going to go out and write things like this for myself.
So directing is your way of taking control.
Even if I have evident mental illness, I’m a rational person. I’m pragmatic, and I’m making conclusions upon facts. Facts are, directors are not thinking of me, they think I only act in my films, because they’re stupid. Or they think I’m a control freak, that I will try to, I don’t know, pimp their scripts, and just change everything, which I will never do. I will refuse to say bad dialogues. Actors who don’t do this are incompetent actors. Other than that, get your stupid techno crane, or hand-hold it. I don’t care.
You just said “I don’t have a style,” and of course there is so much talk about your style. The most common criticism of your films is that they’re all style.
Yeah, people are saying it’s style over substance. But people consider this as a mistake. It’s not a mistake. It’s a choice. Heartbeats is a film on people magnifying and subliming reality when they’re in love. Hence the overstylized look, the aesthetics, the robes, the dresses, the vintage, hipster-ish look: All of this is voluntary. I’m not a hipster. I’m not! I haven’t seen a lot of Almodóvar films, and I refuse to be compared to anyone, be they genius or amateurs, just because my film is colorful, and I film women. This is a contemptuous and stupid way of watching film. Critics have written things like, “Yeah we got it, he’s seen Two Or Three Things I Know About Her.” How could someone ever dare pretending what I’ve seen and not seen. I haven’t seen this fucking film! And I’m not crazy about French New Wave! I think there are great things in French New Wave, because what I love in cinema is when it’s free and loving. I’m doing cinema out of love and out of a desperate need of freedom. And this is French New Wave. But it can be absolute shit as well. That is what’s crazy about French film — you watch it and it’s a masterpiece, and then you watch a film by Godard one year after and it’s unbelievably bad. There are like two or three films I like about Godard. I’m more Truffaut. I can think of more than twenty great Truffaut films. I can’t think of twenty great Godards. And it’s not my favorite period. I’m more of a forties, fifties guy. You watch Forbidden Games by Rene Clement, it hasn’t aged of a second … Have you seen Blue Valentine?
I was crazy about it, actually.
You hated it?
Yeah. I thought it was absolutely phony and absolutely perfect in every detail. Michelle Williams is a revelation, beside Ryan Gosling who is just showing off, because he’s going to be the next intellectual hottie, isn’t he? I just don’t buy it. Seriously. You should really not mention that, though. ‘Cause I don’t want to be contemptuous.