“‘I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier,’” says Xavier Dolan, as we’re sat off the terrace of a grand old hotel on a balmy day in Venice. Don’t worry, the actor-director-writer hasn’t lost his mind: he’s simply acting out the transformation scene from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, where Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle morphs from a bookish PA to Catwoman, a kickass criminal in a tight PVC catsuit.
Pfeiffer’s baroque turn as Catwoman, it seems, is something of a touchstone for Dolan. “I’m inspired by that sort of performance, that sort of freedom,” he continues. “The way she’s acting, it’s like everything is possible, everything is allowed, she can do whatever she wants, and she screams, and it’s over the top, but she’s also showing us that it’s possible to be like this in life.”
This larking around is likely to surprise those who only know Dolan from his films. The 24-year-old’s name has become a byword for prodigious filmmaking talent. By the age it takes most mere mortals to get through film school, Dolan has had three movies (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways) premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim. He’s a serious young man – and as an actor-director the less generous might call him self-serious and self-absorbed. In the films of his in which he’s taken the lead role (I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats) he shoots himself with the kind of admiring gaze that recalls the way Josef von Sternberg would shoot Marlene Dietrich.
His latest, Tom at the Farm, makes its big screen debut at Venice Film Festival, the Pepsi to Cannes’ Coca-Cola. But don’t take that as an indication of a drop in quality. This fourth effort, a claustrophobic psychological chamber piece in which Dolan stars as Tom, a copywriter holed up in an isolated farmhouse with the family of his recently deceased boyfriend, is by a long way his finest work yet – in front of and behind the camera. And, crucially, for the first time, there isn’t an ounce of vanity in his performance. Even before he’s had the first of his many beatings Tom is dishevelled, wearing the kind of ratty bleached-blond mullet that only surfer-dudes or Kurt Cobain can pull off. (A nod to Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, perhaps.)
The film recalls Hitchcock in its classical form and Herrmannesque score. This isn’t the first time Dolan has been compared with other master filmmakers. The aesthetic mode and eye-popping primary colour of his debut, I Killed My Mother, drew comparisons to Pierrot le Fou-era Godard, while his use of slow motion and pop music in Heartbeats called to mind Wong Kar-wai. Dolan is quick to shoot down his status as a magpie filmmaker, though.
“I’m considered to be a cinephile, but no one ever asks me if I’m one,” says the Québécois filmmaker – his perfect mid-Atlantic accent disguising his Francophone roots – when asked about Tom at the Farm’s influences.
“I didn’t have the time to become one,” he says incredulously. “I started watching serious movies when I was 16. That is not a lot of time, because I started to direct movies full-time when I was 18. So between 16 and 18 there are only so many films you can see. I had never seen one Hitchcock before I had directed Tom at the Farm.”
“You would never believe the movies that are really influential to me,” he laughs. “The list is weird.”
The films that have really inspired Dolan, he explains, are the ones that marked him when he was a kid: “We’re talking about family entertainments from the 90s.” As well as Batman Returns, chief among these, it seems, is James Cameron’s Titanic. “[That film] has rooted deeply inside me the reflexes and instincts of filmmaking that you could never identify in Tom at the Farm because it looks to you like an art-house film. But, to me, there are about 17 reaction shots that I’ve stolen from Kate Winslet and you can never tell. That’s how inspiration works for me.”
While Hitchcock may not have been on Dolan’s mind during production, there is a distinct shift in style from his previous work. Gone are the florid, music video-like vignettes of the first three pictures, replaced by sophisticated, restrained camerawork and lush tableaux. “This needed another style,” he says. “I just want to be sensitive to what a script needs, not what I need. I don’t like directors who direct movies so that they cut well on their demo reel. It is not my dream in life for people to say, ‘Oh, this is a Xavier Dolan movie.’”
Another reason why Tom at the Farm feels so different from his earlier films is that it’s his first attempt at directing someone else’s source material: a play by Michel Marc Bouchard. The story concerns the twisted relationship Dolan’s title character forms with his deceased boyfriend’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Francis repeatedly beats him and sets him to work on the farm. Stockholm syndrome sets in and Tom becomes accustomed to, and even starts enjoying, his mistreatment; you could call this a sadomasochistic romance. What was it about the play that made Dolan want to make it into a movie?
“The mother’s character spoke to me in her fragility,” he explains. “She was very vulnerable. I love strong female characters, as history has shown. And there are things that I did not see in the play that I wanted to see in the film. If you see a play that’s already a movie in so many ways, you are not as driven to making it a movie if there’s no work to be done. If it’s already so perfect, all you’ve got to do is take a Kodak and film the thing. You want to think, ‘There’s a reason why I want to make this into a film, it’s because it’s going to be different.’”
What are those things that make it different?
“The violence. The brutality. Strangling someone on a stage is a little funny, you know?” he says while miming strangling himself. “It works, it’s OK, but you’ll immediately see how it could be filmed. It’s appealing to think that you could do it differently and that it would be scarier, and more awkward.”
The film ends with Rufus Wainwright’s Going to a Town playing under the credits, which, as well as being about leaving the past behind, is famously a sneer at America’s perceived moral superiority. Can we assume, then, that Tom’s battle of wills with the brutish Francis, who wears a Stars and Stripes bomber jacket in several key scenes, acts as an allegorical wink to the intolerance of his home country’s neighbours?
It’s a theme that runs through his work. In I Killed My Mother, Dolan’s lead character is sent to boarding school and severely beaten by his schoolmates when they find out he’s gay. And in Dolan’s most controversial work, a music video for French New Wave act Indochine’s single College Boy, he depicts a young man being harassed, beaten up, then crucified and shot to pieces by the school’s bullies while the rest of the pupils (who are wearing blindfolds) film the incident on their iPhones. It’s clearly a subject close to his heart.
“Intolerance is everywhere,” he says. “Everywhere where religious cults are deeply rooted in people’s mores, that’s where you’ll find the most shining intolerance: the most brutal violence and thinking and ostracisation. But it’s not only the USA. Look at Russia – unbelievable in 2013.”