Xavier Dolan’s first two features seem like they needed to be made by a young director. I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats each feature Dolan as lead actor; the former examining his character’s tense relationship with his mother, the latter instead positioning him at the vertex of a similarly tense love triangle. I doubt an older filmmaker could so vibrantly express the rawness of the bond between a teenage boy and his mother with such emotion and insight, or the intensity of young, unrequited love.
The two films, aside from focusing on relationships, are narratively distinct. I Killed My Mother is constructed on a combination of conflicts born both of trivial bullshit and deeper issues revolving around queerness, though it’s somewhat weakened by its feint into melodrama in the third act. Heartbeats, meanwhile, is virtually plotless, languidly chronicling all-consuming infatuation.
Visually, each film has superficial similarities. Dolan uses fastidious framing combined with a bold use of colour, akin to the attractive glossiness of a high-class fashion magazine. That’s not a complaint – Dolan’s use of colour is refreshing in an age where every film either seems to be colour-corrected out the wazoo or naturalistic to point of drabness. That glossiness is applied in decidedly different ways across each film, however.
I Killed My Mother uses static, planimetric framing to provide a sense of emotional distance. It’s generally effective, providing the audience a necessary sense of perspective on the conflict between Hubert (Dolan) and his mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), but it’s perhaps too distant. Dolan’s insistence on separating his characters visually makes sense for Hubert and Chantale: they are rarely allowed to share the frame even when sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, reflecting how their attempts to connect are obstructed by the most trivial disagreements. However when this choice is carried over to conversations between other characters, it creates a sense of detachment.
Heartbeats feels looser, more spontaneous and, consequently, more confident, right from the opening shot. Dolan lets his camera glide and rove, but the shots he produces are no less beautiful – with command of colour even more impressive than his debut. Heartbeats makes regular use of languorous, gorgeous slow motion that recalls early Scorsese or late Wong Kar-wai – you could argue it’s overused, perhaps, but the screenplay makes explicit reference to slow motion (when eating a marshmallow or waiting for a reply text message) to emphasise it’s more than a simple stylistic tic.