Xavier Dolan is only 31, but his CV must by now have reached pamphlet length. Former child star, budding auteur whose first feature played at Cannes when he was 20, Louis Vuitton model, the voice of Ron Weasley when the Harry Potter films were dubbed for French-Canadian audiences. Despite having directed eight features, not one has been as widely seen as his video for the multi-million-selling “Hello”, with its moody, sepia-soaked images of net curtains, antique furniture and Adele having a right mare in the woods.
It is Dolan’s weakness for the music promo aesthetic, and for montages set to recent pop hits, that has stood in his way of being a truly great director. Thankfully, there are fewer of those sugar highs in Matthias & Maxime, which displays a more contemplative aspect (he has described the picture as “underdressed”). It concerns two Montreal friends, the suave, bearded lawyer Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and the truculently handsome urchin Max (Dolan), who had a brief fling at college. Now both are apparently straight, and Max is on the verge of moving to Melbourne to start a new life. Before he goes, they agree to appear in a friend’s experimental short film, which is shooting at a rural cabin. Neither realises until it’s too late that the scene will require them to kiss. As their lips are about to lock, the film cuts to an exterior shot of the cabin, two empty swings swaying in the breeze to the sound of owls hooting. Unrequited love suddenly acquires shades of Friday the 13th.
The next day, Matt goes for an early morning swim, only to lose his bearings and end up on the other side of the lake. No mystery what he was swimming from, or which sins he was trying to cleanse. When he finally returns, he flops exhausted on the jetty at Max’s feet, gasping like a dying fish. The swimming mishap is only partly to blame for his feelings of disorientation.
The two friends are estranged for most of what follows, as the picture charts instead the effect that these disinterred desires have on their lives. Matt becomes twitchy at home and vague at work, though it’s harder to pinpoint how Max is changed by the kiss. His life is already fairly tumultuous, what with caring for a sick, belligerent mother who taunts him about his masculinity and hurls the TV remote at his head. Maternal issues come as standard in any Xavier Dolan production, as you might expect from a director who called his debut film I Killed My Mother and made the shrill, turbo-charged Mommy, but the emphasis of the new movie is more on the turmoil swirling around Matt and Max. Any bystanders are prone to get caught in the slip-stream, mothers included.
Dolan has a facility for noisy, crowded party scenes, though his eye for detail here produces some quieter and more acute moments – Matt’s fixation with a potted plant in his boss’s office, or the volley of glances exchanged between Max and a stranger on the bus, whose initial interest turns to shock and then pity.
Whatever the emotional fluctuations, the temperature of the film is stabilised by some strict colour-coding. Matt’s suit and tie are an icy blue, with his scenes, such as that morning swim, usually tinted the same colour, while Max is associated with the livid reds of his T-shirts and the strawberry birthmark dominating one side of his face. Only once is the pattern reversed, as the men prepare for their screen kiss and briefly find themselves wearing each other’s skins, so to speak. No pop songs necessary: Dolan lets the colours sing.
Illicit desires also run through the Brazilian drama Sócrates, named after its main character, a gay 15-year-old (played by the gifted newcomer Christian Malheiros) whose hardscrabble existence grows even more perilous after the death of his mother. Dodging child protection services, he ends up earning peanuts working in a scrap- yard alongside the scowling, sultry Maicon (Tales Ordakji). Harshness and beauty co-exist in the same frame: if the expanse of coastal São Paulo is seen at all, it is squeezed behind derelict buildings or flooded grassland, the compositions so wincingly tight that the film sometimes seems to have been shot on one of those hidden cameras used to expose social injustice.
That would only be fitting. Each effort Sócrates makes to improve his life or do the right thing is stymied, whether by bureaucracy and systemic neglect or cowardice and homophobia. The film crams a lot of hardship into its 70 minutes, as well as an abundance of humanity. It was produced for less than $20,000 by the Unicef-sponsored Querô Institute, which supplied the director Alexandre Moratto with a cast and crew drawn from economically disadvantaged, at-risk teenagers. The portrait of Brazil shows a country in a state of accelerated disrepair, whereas the film is a testament to the skill and tenacity of those who might otherwise have been written off.
“Matthias & Maxime” is streaming on Mubi from 28 August
Matthias & Maxime (15)
dir: Xavier Dolan
“Sócrates” is streaming and in cinemas from 4 September
dir: Alexandre Moratto