Matthias & Maxime review: a crisp, sweet Canadian coming-of-age tale

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Matthias & Maxime screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Matthias & Maxime screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival

Dir: Xavier Dolan. Cast: Xavier Dolan, Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas, Pier-Luc Funk, Adib Alkhalidey, Micheline Bernard, Anne Dorval. Cert TBC, 118 mins.

Xavier Dolan may have just turned 30, but the Quebecois wunderkind is already three acts and eight films into a prodigious directorial career. Following the shrilly divisive It’s Only the End of the World (2016) and the apparently disastrous all-star ensemble piece The Death & Life of John F Donovan – which all but vanished after its hostile reception at Toronto last year – he returns to Cannes with a slight but necessary palate-cleanser, as crisp and tangy-sweet as raspberry sorbet, and Dolan’s most conventional and accessible work to date.

It is about a longstanding friendship between two scruffily attractive Canadian 20-somethings – one, Max, played by Dolan, the other, Matt, by Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas – that sharply intensifies after the boys are invited by the precocious younger sister of another member of their ramshackle social circle, Rivette (Pier-Luc Funk), to stage a gay kiss for her experimental short film.

Maxime, who has a prominent, ruby-red birthmark on his right cheek, freely volunteers, while Matthias acquiesces only after losing a bet. Dolan doesn’t show the kiss itself – not at first, at least – but the rest of the film bobs along on the ripples it creates, as both men respectively look to the horizons in front of them and wonder if they’ve failed to make a crucial navigational realignment. 

Dolan’s love of language, particularly in the form of hectic repartee, is once again to the fore. Matt and Max’s friendship group have a love of raucous word games, and also playfully pounce on one another’s grammatical errors. There is a premium on expressing oneself clearly and respectably – the boys groan whenever Rivette’s sister lapses from Canadian French into internet-slang-peppered Valley Girl English – which stands in ironic contrast to Matt and Max’s own inability to state the obvious: that under very lightly altered circumstances they might now be lovers, or even partners for life.

Instead, Matt has a job with a high-flying and strait-laced Montreal law firm, and, later on, a girlfriend (Marilyn Castonguay) perfectly cut from the demure corporate arm-candy template, while Max is bound for Australia: a departure which is counted down to via a series of title cards, as the deadline for these two to sort their drama out.

As is typical with Dolan, there is a problematic mother figure looming in the background; as before, she is played by Anne Dorval, but in a skulking, poisonous register that’s the inverse of the hyper-suburban hysteria of her role in 2014’s Mommy. Max endures some pretty awful humiliations at her hands and Dolan plays the humiliation well, but the scenes don’t obviously mesh with his friendship problems elsewhere in the film: the plots feel like parallel strands in a soap opera rather than two sides of a watertight character piece. Max’s birthmark is far better integrated – it’s just a part of who he is, rare and awkward and beautiful, and while it has been applied partly digitally, it looks as lovingly photographed as everything else here, thanks to its director’s preference for dreamy 35mm and 65mm film stock.

Matthias & Maxime doesn’t feel as perpetually lodged inside its characters’ heads as Dolan’s earlier films, though there is one sequence in which he hits his stride, as Matt takes a head-clearing swim in the lake the morning after the fateful kiss. Mozart swells on the soundtrack, muscles undulate and clench, and the limb-churned water seems to boil around the young man’s body. Otherwise, it feels very much like a transitional film – the starting-line hops and skips that prefigure a giant leap.

Matthias & Maxime was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival