Savina Petkova on Xavier Dolan’s ‘Matthias & Maxime’ (2019)
Humans strive for happiness, argues Aristotle. Ethical judgements ascribe an unattainable inclination to progress and development, while psychologists make a living out of untangling the tight knots of desire that divert one from the (otherwise straight?) path to happiness. Amidst the conflicts of a path well-trodden, Xavier Dolan gestures towards the ineffable and his eight-film corpus serves as a revelation of human weakness and its delicate overtones. His newest, Matthias & Maxime is the sugar-coated shy sibling to the concealed grief of Dolan’s It’s Only The End Of The World (2016).
Life-long friendship and boys’ banter encapsulates a collective being: six friends on their regular night out make up for a predictable plot, therefore something ought to stir their demons. What better than a saucy bet that exposes Matthias’ (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) lack of altruism by making him kiss his endearingly quiet friend, Maxime (Dolan himself makes a spiritual return to acting). All of this is absurdly framed as a sequence of an aspiring but rather annoying filmmaker. Namely, Rivette (Pierre-Luc Funk)’s sister, who brings forth the laughable side of making art-pour-l’art, mixing impressionism with expressionism — no doubt, her character is a sarcastic take on self-indulgent artists. As the importance of such humorous distance implies, something very crucial is about to happen. Dolan uses the identificatory mechanisms of home video and rapid zooms in and out a’la Dogme 95 to reveal the transcendental potential of a single, ordinary moment that one could dismiss as a simple “boys will be boys”.
Denied its gradual built-up, the kiss itself marks a transgression of desire, while being skilfully masked by Mat and Max as a casual, jocular encounter. While the robust group dialogue reveals a spectacular back and forth power play in the male pack, all that lurks in the silent gaps invites the spectator to ponder on whether or not the bet is a reenactment of hidden desires. The ghost of a repressed past keeps haunting Mat, as he is the only protagonist isolated from the presence of others in the frame, for the first part of the film. Cornered by bedroom walls, the deafening silence plucks Matthias out of the ever-cheerful conversation to suggest that he does, in fact, remember playfully kissing Maxime in high school. By giving his character space to breathe with doubt, Gabriel Freitas is fixated upon Matthias’ inner circulations between right and wrong. This inner turmoil is mirrored in the tonal change of soundtrack: the upbeat songs and shouting switched off, while heartfelt piano solos drench the loneliness with romantic waves. The student film kiss catalyses the perplexities of identity that have long bothered the duo: who am I and what do I desire?
In this sense, Matthias & Maxime remains rigidly outdate in its portrayal of social guilt induced by the possibility of being branded homosexual. Nevertheless, it is this inner conflict that allows a simple story to become a tantalising play on self-acceptance. While Dolan’s dramatic crux may come across archaic, the identification is sharp enough to guarantee empathy for both characters and their deeply traced psychologism. Asserting a ticking timer to its own climax, the narrative development becomes in turns hypertonic and falsely flat to guarantee maximum tension before Maxime’s set departure date: the first one to leave the pack and travel around the world to unknowable Australia.
Caressing proximity and cold distance interchange in rapid motion when the camera steps back from its objects, and right until the end, Maxime and Matthias rarely appear in the same frame. It is as if the complete pleasure of togetherness is refused both to them, spatially, and to the viewer, visually. Meanwhile, both characters are defined by each other’s absence in a nostalgic manner, almost like Medieval French poetry –courtly love that involves suffering but never actualisation. The cinematography is in tune with the effusive desire, yet the distance proves as important as proximity in its generation of tension. Moments of solitude see Matthias swimming for dear life away from the known land, and the combination of waves, air bubbles, and tender piano key notes merge with the muffled voice of an alienating world. This dramatic quality of the diegetic music., escapes the film world and whimsically subdues all the heartbroken spectator souls to a worldly mourning of unspoken love. Love, no doubt, Dolan equates with desire, sensorially heightened by the fact that he withholds calling it by any of its names. In this denial of language, do not wait on love confessions, or even talks about sex — Matthias & Maxime may flatten its surface dialogue shifting the power conflict to a physical level, one that is personal to the characters and expressive in a bodily manner.
While words are in chains, certain images of Matthias & Maxime stick to the unconscious like glue: the redness of Mat’s neck as he is forced to give a speech about Maxime’s departure; Max’s feverish attempt to cover his facial birthmark in front of a smudgy mirror; palms intertwining as a silhouette seen through a plastic cover. “We are simply in the presence of one another”, states the devilish American preacher of polygamy, McAfee (baby-faced and mischievous Harris Dickinson), as he slides his engagement ring off in front of a stripper. The mere presence of the other in love, the film testifies, requires a reworking of its absence, which makes room for both dreaming and tragic pain. While pain is a recurring motif in Xavier Dolan’s films, the story of Matthias & Maxime leaves room for improvement. For a director with proven emotional punch in his minimalist storytelling, his latest film leaves one rather content, rather happy. When portraying a sober story of denial that turns into acceptance, the risk of failure seems too minimal, yet resorting to a safe choice leaves a heart-wrenching couple stuck in sugary substance, rather than achieving a transcendental metamorphosis.
Screened as part of the 2019 Festival de Cannes