Matthias & Maxime review: Xavier Dolan reflects on growing up, glibly

The one-time designated wunderkind holds fast to cliché in this drama of two ageing millennial bros panicked by the prospect of a filmed kiss.

28 August 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

Matthias & Maxime (2019)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Matthias & Maxime is available on Mubi from 28 August 2020

It stands to reason that someone who was nominated as the voice of his generation should have an exaggerated idea of the importance of generations. This at least is one way of explaining why the characters of writer-director Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime don’t come across as individuals so much as broadly defined types stamped by stereotypes of age and class, sketched in with a loose hand and a vague line. The title characters are, presumably, around Dolan’s own age – in fact, the now 31-year-old Dolan plays Maxime, a working-class kid with a raspberry-coloured birthmark on his right cheek.

Maxime and Matthias, friends since primary school days, belong to a group of bros no longer quite young, following a well-trodden path of friendship into adulthood, seen together early on enjoying bong rips and jocularly homophobic ball-busting at a cottage getaway somewhere in rural Québec. The movie’s crisis is set in motion by a zoomer interloper in the party, the younger sister of one of the core group, who is shooting a project for film school and who recruits Matthias and Maxime to replace her MIA actors. The character, played by Camille Felton, is a caricature of Gen Z woolly-mindedness, peppering her conversation with borrowed English slang and prattling on about her generation’s sophisticated non-binary approach to sexuality, a subject broached when she finally mentions that Matthias and Maxime will be expected to engage in a passionate lip-lock for her movie.

The same-sex kiss, never seen on-screen, becomes a structuring absence, a preoccupation for Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), whose orderly life – a live-in girlfriend, steady advancement at the law firm for which he works – faces sudden disarray as he begins to question his sexuality, a personal torment portrayed through a lot of soulful steepling of brow, pensive close-ups, and a gnawing anxiety that builds towards reckless panic. The nature of Matthias’s anguish is never really in doubt from the moment when he takes an almost-suicidal swim on the eve of his on-camera canoodling with his best friend, whereas the likelihood of Maxime’s receptiveness is somewhat more opaque, for Maxime’s life is already marked by chaos, evidence of his possible sexual confusion partly drowned out by the din of his messy home life with an angry ex-addict mother (Dolan regular Anne Dorval) and the burdensome necessity of preparing to start a new life abroad tending bar in Australia.

Matthias & Maxime (2019)

No less than Felton’s ditz, Dorval’s chain-smoking holy terror is a stereotyped stock character with a single function to fulfil – in this case, ‘explaining’ the roots of Maxime’s repression. The same can be said of almost every other supporting player in the film, from the crusty superior at Matthias’s firm who symbolises – along with his wilting potted plant, which Matthias eyes significantly – personal and professional stultification, to the oleaginous young lawyer from Toronto who Matthias is tasked with showing around town. (This is Harris Dickinson, star of a significantly more intelligent and lively coming-out drama, Eliza Hittman’s 2017 Beach Rats.)

Such shorthand characterisations, along with emotionally instructive musical cues by pianist Jean-Michel Blais, might be said to make Matthias & Maxime a fairly ‘efficient’ piece of work – it keeps to a maximum of one easily digestible idea per scene, and is not likely to leave even the thickest viewer uncertain as to what is happening on-screen and what is likely to happen. They also make it awfully lugubrious going, a two-hour trip to a destination that never really feels in doubt, with few surprises along the way, several lurching stabs at the sentimental, and at least a couple of cumbersome subplots too many.

Six years ago, after winning the Jury Prize with his Mommy at Cannes, Dolan was anointed as an enfant terrible, because he was very young and good-looking and seemed interested in Instagram aesthetics – Felton’s student filmmaker here might be taken as a parody of the most uncharitable image some held of him. Here, however, with a twitchy zoom the only evidence of his rebellious youth, Dolan is in a position something like faced by his film’s ageing millennials, on the cusp of settling into staid convention. To do so is no sin, but mature convention no more or less than youthful provocation requires inspiration and curiosity, and little enough of either is on display here.

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