‘Matthias & Maxime’ review: will-they-won’t-they romance blurs boundaries between love and friendship

French auteur Xavier Dolan is back to his best after an English-language flop

Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan has achieved much in his 31 years. Since directing his first feature aged just 19, the former child actor has carved out an impressive career as an award-winning filmmaker of brash, pugnacious dramas in which he often stars. He even finds time for the occasional cameo in Hollywood blockbusters like It Chapter Two.

In Matthias & Maxime – the eighth feature he has written and directed – Dolan plays Max, a 20-something Québécois bar-worker preparing to spend a year or two in Melbourne. Max has a small, close band of friends he laughs and parties with including Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas). From the credits onwards, when the eponymous pair sprint on adjacent running machines, quick, easy dialogue establishes their tight friendship, which is explored and mocked by their pals during a weekend away. Ostensibly heterosexual Matt and Max kissed once years previously and now student filmmaker Erika, the younger sister of group joker Marc, convinces them to re-enact it as part of a short she is making.

After this, the film focuses on Max’s preparations for jetting off to Melbourne. There are important practical and pragmatic concerns to be dealt with. One key plot point involves Max repeatedly asking for a letter of professional recommendation from Matt’s father to assist him in Australia. Another sees Max dealing with his abusive, layabout mother Manon (Anne Dorval) while ensuring she will survive in his absence. Tempestuous maternal relationships are a recurring theme in Dolan’s work (see 2014’s Mommy) and here there is bitterness, anger and occasional tenderness. But ultimately, Max’s most important task is deciding what to do about Matt.

The whole cast interact naturally like a family. Freitas is particularly believable as Matt – he goes about his day but cares little for work or anything else when Max is on his mind. Dorval, Dolan’s favourite actress, is also exceptional as a mum who throws insults – and a remote control – at Max.

Matthias & Maxime
Writer-director-star Xavier Dolan takes a selfie with the cast and crew of ‘Matthias & Maxime’. Credit: MUBI

Dolan’s work is not for everyone and though the drama is dialled down in this case, there is still a lot of his trademark, wordy trash talk. Thankfully, the big Dolan ‘pop’ moment – a scene in all of his films, usually accompanied by a killer track, when the protagonist makes some emotional headway – is also present. But where 2014’s Mommy had the unexpected burst of Oasis‘ ‘Wonderwall’, Matthias & Maxime benefits from tunes by Pet Shop Boys, Arcade Fire and Britney Spears.

After the English-language failure of The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan has returned to his native French language with perhaps his best movie yet. Like so much brilliant art, Matthias & Maxime tells a universal story in an incredibly personal fashion. Whatever your sexuality, you have probably been in a friendship that might have, should have or maybe did cross into love, sex or both, for better or worse. It’s rare to see such a clear, honest and nuanced on-screen depiction of such an experience.

Details

  • Director: Xavier Dolan
  • Starring: Harris Dickinson, Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval
  • Release date: August 28 (MUBI)
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