MONTREAL — If Xavier Dolan could direct a film about his life, he says, the opening scene would show the first encounter between his headstrong and emotional Quebecer mother and his Egyptian-born womanizing father, at a bohemian bar in Montreal where his mother had gone to hear his father sing.
This being a Dolan production, there is a good chance the mother would be overbearing, vulnerable and exquisitely made up. The camera would zoom in unforgivingly. The emotions would be volcanic, and ecstasy would soon give way to agony, accompanied by the frenetic beats of a music video.
His parents’ marriage ended when Mr. Dolan was 2 and a half years old. By the time he was 8, his mother, unable to cope with her hyperactive son, sent him to boarding school in rural Quebec, where the young gay boy was mercilessly bullied and where, in turn, he tormented others. He found refuge in Hollywood films like “Titanic” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” along with the psychodrama of kitsch American sitcoms.
Today, Mr. Dolan — celebrated actor and director, Louis Vuitton model, voice-over artist (he provided the voice of Ron Weasley in the French Canadian versions of the “Harry Potter” movies), darling of the Cannes Film Festival, former child star and art-house cinema wunderkind — says the fuel for his art is his lost childhood. He has directed seven films. He is 29.
“I wanted to get out of childhood as soon as possible and escape it, and now that I’m making movies, I’m chasing it,” he said during an eight-hour interview that had all the intensity of a Dolan film, accented by allusions to Proust and a heavy snowfall outside. It began at Montreal’s opulent St. James Hotel before migrating to his handsome Edwardian house, which, he notes, channels the red chinoiserie of Diana Vreeland’s lush New York apartment.
“What I have been feasting on all these years is nostalgia — a nostalgia for the childhood that I didn’t end up having,” he added.
Waiflike and compact, wearing a hoodie and with a tattoo of Dumbledore (of “Harry Potter” fame) on his left arm, Mr. Dolan peppers his sentences in English with words like “prolix” and “epistolary,” and only occasionally switches into French to emphasize a point. He used part of his earnings as a child star to take Berlitz classes in English. Even early on, he said, he realized that if he was going to conquer Hollywood, he would need to speak fluent English.
In person, Mr. Dolan is at once intense and cerebral, funny and self-deprecating.
He has sometimes been pilloried as impish and arrogant, and he bristles at being labeled an “enfant terrible,” as he often is. It is perhaps an occupational hazard for a director who has been variously compared to Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and the poet Arthur Rimbaud.
He made his first film, “I Killed My Mother,” a Freudian-tinged, semi-autobiographical film about a gay teenager who clashes with his mother, after he dropped out of college at 17. As one producer after the other rejected it, he scraped together money from his child-acting gigs to make the film himself, at age 20, eventually winning international acclaim. When he later noted wryly that Orson Welles, who made “Citizen Kane” at 25, was a “late bloomer,” the critics pounced, and he turned to Twitter to explain that he had been joking.
“I’m a big mouth. People can dislike me and think I’m a narcissistic brat,” he said. “But one thing no one can ever take away from me is that I’ve always spoken my mind, and I have always been true to myself.”
As we meet, he is the subject of a social media storm over his decision to cut the American star Jessica Chastain from his soon-to-be released film, “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan,” his first English-language film. The movie focuses on an 11-year-old boy and his unlikely correspondence with a closeted actor that is contorted into scandal. (When he was 9 years old, Mr. Dolan wrote a letter to Leonardo DiCaprio, requesting a meeting. He got the address wrong, and it is now framed in Mr. Dolan’s house.)
In the deeply moving film, shot in London, Montreal, New York and Prague, the boy, now a grown man, tells a hard-bitten journalist about how Donovan, torn between fame and personal fulfillment, had changed his life. The original cut of the movie, which stars Kathy Bates, Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, and has added cultural resonance in the #MeToo era, was more than four hours long. Eliminating Ms. Chastain, he says, was predicated solely on her character no longer fitting the story line.
“People are saying: How can you cut someone so famous?” he said. “To me, that’s an insult to her talent.”
Born in Montreal, Mr. Dolan was raised by his single mother, Geneviève, a college administrator with Irish roots. He began appearing in commercials for a drugstore chain at the age of 4, and by the time he was 6 he was a child star, appearing in movies, television shows and commercials.
Mr. Dolan’s films, a cri de coeur for tolerance, are invariably populated by outcasts and underdogs, a reflection, he says, of his own feelings of not belonging. When he was 8, he recalled, a bully on a bike plowed over him in the schoolyard. “At that moment, I decided that my world was in the movies and in the shows,” he said. “Anywhere but real life.”
He remembered a kindly headmaster letting him escape bullies by allowing him to watch his beloved American sitcoms in an empty dormitory. Later, he added, the headmaster, who was accused of pedophilia, killed himself.
After Mr. Dolan was catapulted to cinematic fame with “I Killed My Mother,” he made a raft of French-language films, including “Laurence Anyways,” an ill-fated love story featuring a transgender schoolteacher. In his most critically acclaimed movie, “Mommy,” which shared the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2014, a mother played by his muse, the Quebecer actress Anne Dorval, tries to tame her violent son.
Unifying nearly all of his films are strong-willed but vulnerable female characters who provide succor to emotionally wounded sons. “I was brought up by women. I never had a father figure,” Mr. Dolan said. “Of course, there is a part of my mother in these strong women, and of course, there is a part of me.”
While his films can divide critics, they seldom leave the viewer indifferent. His last film, “It’s Only the End of the World,” about a gay man who comes home to his family in rural France to tell them that he is dying, was booed at Cannes in 2016, but won the Grand Prix. More than a year later, Mr. Dolan is still smarting from the eviscerating criticism (the film, with A-list French actors such as Marion Cotillard, is hard to watch, and it deals an emotional body blow, with characters who brutally turn on one another).
“I still feel scared to disappoint people and to be criticized or mocked,” he reflects. “I wasn’t like that before.”
Mr. Dolan admits that his romantic life has been largely devoid of longer-term relationships because he tends to be attracted to unattainable heterosexual men. His latest crush is Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau. In the same way, he said, he really made friends only in his late 20s, after an adolescence consumed by work.
“The love stories that I have found that are reciprocal are in movies,” he said, with more than a hint of wistfulness.
His next film, “Matt and Max,” recounts the story of two heterosexual male 20-somethings who share a kiss, and the impact it has on their lives. After a slew of thoughtful films with gay themes, such as “Call Me by Your Name” and “God’s Own Country,” Mr. Dolan said he wanted to reflect on unrequited love — his unrequited love.
As I am leaving, he suddenly stops me and looks me in the eye. “I don’t want you to think my parents were monsters,” he said. “My childhood really wasn’t that bad.”
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