Written & Directed by: Xavier Dolan
Recommended by: Drew at A Fistful of Films
Seventeen-year-old Hubert (Xavier Dolan) is the only child of Chantal (Anne Dorval), an overwhelmed and somewhat emotionally immature single mother. Having survived her childhood with a severely mentally ill mom and struggled to singlehandedly support her son, she can’t understand why Hubert isn’t more grateful. Meanwhile, trapped inside his tumultuous feelings toward his mother, Hubert videotapes himself delivering monologues about his burgeoning dislike for her.
The film’s opening shots are perfect. We see Chantal through Hubert’s eyes, up close — too close. Her unfashionable sweater. Crumbs on her face. An ugly twist of her mouth as she eats. Within seconds, not only do we get what’s going on in Hubert’s head, we’re there, inside his skin.
Who isn’t familiar with that phase of adolescence when everything a parent does is gut-clenchingly, intolerably annoying? Anne LaMott wrote, in one of her novels, about a teen girl nearly being flung over the edge with irritation over the way her mom boiled water.
And everything his mother does — including the way she eats, the kitschy crap on her walls, and her driving — rubs Hubert raw. Arguments erupt, and Chantal — unable to step back into an “adult” space — almost invariably rises to the bait. From the beginning of the film, throughout the continual drama that infuses Hubert’s relationship with his mom, we get a sense of the closeness they once shared. This aspect of their relationship — along with some Oedipal overtones — is made more explicit toward the end of the movie. Having lived alone together since Hubert was a small child, their bond must have been intense.
Herein lies part of the problem. They both need to step back, but they can’t. They infuriate each other, but they’re closely intertwined. Hubert’s only other close relationship seems to be with his boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud). Their blossoming romance provides colorful and playful moments. Antonin’s sometimes inappropriate but open, playful relationship with his mother, Hélène (Patricia Tulasne) offers a striking contrast to Hubert’s home life.
The performances in this film are terrific. Dolan’s portrayal of Hubert is a vibrant portrait of continually shifting emotions — a credible portrait of adolescence. He is sullen, petulant, writhing with impotent rage, narcissistically angsty, childlike, intelligent, thoughtful, and — at times — volatile.
Anne Dorval’s performance is beautifully nuanced. Her behavior infuriated me, but it was impossible not to empathize with her and, even in her worst moments. I saw her love for her son almost every moment she was onscreen. One of the few times she didn’t rise to the bait when Hubert yelled at her, she delivered one of the most memorable lines in the movie. In response to his accusatory barb, “What would you do if I died today?” she said quietly, “I’d die tomorrow.” It’s a simple, powerful tribute to the raw, primitive, infinite intensity of parental love.
The most memorable aspects of I Killed My Mother, for me, will be its unfettered emotion and its unfiltered view of life through the mind of an adolescent. I was also moved by Chantal’s silent pain, when she wasn’t parrying Hubert’s attacks or raging at him. This movie reflects the deeply flawed nature of mother-child relationships, but also their strength and tenacity.