When British cinemagoers last encountered the Quebecois enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, back in 2016, he seemed to be doing okay for himself: the film was It's Only the End of the World, a starry, well-turned ensemble drama that earned its maker the Cannes Grand Prix gong. That success, however, was followed by the spectacular crash-and-burn of 2018's The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, conceived as prime awards bait, what with its red carpet-ready cast (Natalie Portman! The Room kid! That guy from Game of Thrones!), yet a film that stalled in post-production, met with disastrous reviews on its festival debut, and did next to nothing commercially. (It limped straight-to-satellite in the UK.) After that bruising lesson, Matthias & Maxime finds this always dangerously overhyped, more often than not wayward talent returning to first principles: it's the kind of film where a jaded slacker, played by the director himself, rediscovers something essential by looking at a child's drawing. We open, however, in Big Chill territory, as a group of friends reunite at a lakeside cabin ahead of an imminent departure for pastures new, and Dolan's rootless Maxime is recruited to appear in a documentary describing the experiences of his generation. "Are you ready for your close-up?," joshes his upwardly mobile, straight-edged pal Matthias (Gabriel d'Almeida Freitas). Dolan the director answers that question almost immediately by giving himself the first of several especially adoring close-ups. A chastened Dolan, it turns out, looks much the same as a Dolan in full pomp.
For those of us who aren't fully paid-up members of the Xavier Dolan Fan Club (subscriber perks: monthly newsletter penned by Dolan himself, T-shirt with Xav's face on the front), the hope has always been that maturity might yet encourage this creative to move beyond some of his flashier and more enervating tics and tricks. Small flickers of growth were apparent within the wildly overlong Laurence Anyways and Mommy, and more than that visible in It's Only the End of the World, where the actors added dashes of life experience that weren't all present in the script. Dolan has a workable idea here: to contrast the Matthias-and-Maxime group's worldview with those of others (teens, women, older women), and to observe where and how these subsets intersect. What he's gesturing towards, I think, is the widespread atomisation that has contributed to the decline of Western civilisation (Denys Arcand, an earlier Quebecois specialist in this field, gets a shoutout), but it's an idea explored in no particular depth, a title without a thesis. For a while, Dolan seems to fall back into his own worst habits: insane, alienating camera movements (all sudden jerks and push-ins, suggesting this reunion is being observed by a caffeinated chaffinch), self-consciously cool dialogue. You know those security devices that emit a high-pitched shriek so as to prevent kids (whose ears are still young and fresh enough to hear it) from loitering? Dolan has constructed the movie equivalent of one of those - except it's old folks (anyone upwards of, ugh, thirty) Matthias & Maxime will send packing.
That pretty much does for the show of crossgenerational empathy - revealed as superficial at best - though the film calms down and gets a little better as it goes on. Dolan wades so far into his scene that he sometimes brushes up against the satire of scenesterism a Gregg Araki would make: at the premiere of that documentary (by a Mademoiselle Rivette, no less), someone is prompted by a shot of a children's playground to ask whether the swings are non-binary. And I can't take too strongly against any film that slaps the Pet Shop Boys' "Always On My Mind" on its soundtrack, even if it seems typical of Dolan's tendency to deploy high-impact musical cues to mitigate against deficiencies elsewhere. Dramatically, for one, he's repeating and recycling himself. Maxime's fractious relationship with his shut-in mother (Micheline Bernard) replays any number of notes from Dolan's earliest work; a dress-up montage takes him back to 2010's Heartbeats; and the parallel being drawn between the two named protagonists, set on very different paths yet equally lost, tails off after Dolan has got his hand down his co-star's pants. (Straight male directors have been cancelled for less.) What's exasperating about the Dolan oeuvre is the sense that he's spent a lot of other people's time and money working through his own issues; in doing so, he's made himself the poster boy for the New Narcissism oozing out from social media to infect our politics and culture, but you can't help but feel the course of recent cinema history might have been altered if he'd just got more hugs from his mum. Once it stops waving hands and camera around for our attention, Matthias & Maxime proves a quietly handsome watch: everyone takes a flattering close-up, and the director knows how to frame an attractive image. Dolan has an eye; his most fervent admirers and haters would agree on that. It's just a pity it should so often be turned on himself.
Matthias & Maxime is now streaming via MUBI UK.