#ANT Venom# : Gender in Xavier Dolan’s Films

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- Sudipto Nag

You may be 30, 28 or 24 and still thinking of making a film. I mean your first professional attempt. Open your eyes and look around. A 25 year old guy is making films regularly and not only that, he is surprising all the big names [1] and bagging awards in prestigious film festivals like Cannes film festival, Venice film festival, Toronto international film festival, and so on. My fellas, I’m talking of French-Canadian film maker Xavier Dolan. 

Dolan started his career as a child actor in ‘Miséricorde’ (Misery) in 1994 and debuted as a film director at the age of 19. Not only
did he direct his first film ‘I Killed My Mother’ (released in 2009), he also wrote its story and acted in the role of the lead character. Now maybe you are thinking of him as an alien or a real genius. I mean you might be thinking how can a young boy like him make such matured films to be praised all over the festival circuits? He must be really different from other guys of his age. But trust me, Xavier Dolan is just a cool dude like any other guy of his age. He is not an egoist asshole because of what he has achieved so early in his life. He is quite down to earth whether it is about his choice of films or his gender. May be you are thinking why I’m suddenly speaking of gender but actually gender is another thing (may be the most important one) that motivated Xavier to make his films. Xavier is gay and despite facing daily problems in the society he proudly presents himself as a homosexual and has a strong hope that the new generation is smart enough to openly accept ideas on homosexuality, polysexuality, sex change etc. 

Just like his gender, Xavier has his own way to appreciate films. It might be a real shock that Xavier, who is the new name of art house cinema and shared his last award with the great maestro Jean Luc Godard last year in Cannes, clearly admits his fascination towards a commercial film like ‘Titanic’. I think I have talked much on Xavier, and surely I would come back again on him, but let’s now cut the intro part here and discuss the central point of this article. Why am I talking about Xavier Dolan? What’s so important about him, his works? As I already said in my previous article, there is no point in discussing the same alphabets any more. Xavier as a director gained my respect because of his unique vision and bold attitude.
Dolan has an attraction towards ‘don’ts’. And this places him in a confrontational position with the norms of the society, set by patriarchy in a huge way. Countering these social taboos and concepts is indeed a big challenge. Take into account the name of his first film - ‘I Killed My Mother’. The name itself suggests how differently Xavier thinks. One could have named the film as – ‘The Bitter Love Story of a Mother and a Son’, or something on these lines. Less direct than what Xavier used as the title, to say. But ‘I Killed My Mother’ is painfully more touching and appropriate as it describes the image of a non-existing mother. The autobiographical film reflects the problems of teenage and Xavier’s experience of getting detached with his family, the pangs of hostel life and his gradual growing up.  

A film about mother and son relationship is not a new thing. ‘400 Blows’ [2] may be a milestone which inspired Dolan to take up such a story. But Dolan takes us to a very personal level and magically he is able to emotionally attach the central characters with his viewers. How will a mother react when she comes to know that her son is gay? This reminds me of Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘Chitrangada’ [3]. Dolan’s poetic visuals lead us to witness Dolan’s personal journey and since he plays the main protagonist in the film it becomes more personal and touching. This kind of storytelling reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits [4]. But gay issue may be a part of his ‘Heartbeats’ or ‘I Killed My Mother’ but it is ‘Laurence Anyways’ which destroyed the patriarchal notions radically. Hence this is the film we would discuss here rather than his other great works like ‘Mommy’ or ‘I Killed My Mother’. In the film ‘Laurence Anyways’, Laurence and his girlfriend Fred’s happy life turned to a nightmare when Laurence wished to change his sex. At the same time he wanted to carry on the relationship. This film’s one dialog clearly breaks the notion of gendering and socially perceived humanity. When a girl in the film is asked why she is living with a man despite his sex change, she replies - “All that matters to me is person.” This bold statement clearly shakes the patriarchal ideology. This film was more about sensitive issues like sex change/identity/humanity, etc. in a larger context rather than a single individual's story, though centering on Laurence’s life. Love becomes a universal theme and the notion of the individual identity becomes more open and universal with Xavier’s bold new vision. That’s why I think it is different than other LGBTQ films. It is not worried about moral policing or spreading a message. Rather it is focusing on the roots of this massive problem.

If someone dresses up like a girl we assume he/she needs a guy. That is heterosexual thinking. If that person chooses a girl we think him/her as lesbian. Let’s put it simple - no gendering for loved ones. Or for that matter, no one. You can use as many terms like straight, gay, transsexual, bisexual, polysexual, bla bla bla and the list will go on but the fact remains that whatever you call them they are all human beings. And ‘love for a human being’ may be a simpler and more appropriate term.

We call someone girly or boyish looking at their appearance and attributes. But it is the patriarchal structure which has provided us with these vague notions about a girl and a boy. Salman becomes more masculine by cracking adult jokes or by hitting villains with his bare arms. Madhuri Dixit or Aishwariya becomes more feminine by performing in a girlish manner (basically snooty) and dancing showing off their belly curves. But the fact is both man and woman can have characteristics thought to be typical of the other gender, since these characteristics have nothing to do with their biological orientations. That’s why a man dressing up like women is normal to me. Women have already adopted men’s clothes. Behaving outside the patriarchal norms set up for men and women should not be seen as unnatural and ridiculed at. Salute to Xavier Dolan who dared to deal on the borderlines of such a sensitive issue like individual gender with so much love and care and presenting a bold and fresh vision denouncing the patriarchal structure and stereotype gender constructions in popular films. After watching this film people will not feel sympathetic for gay, lesbian or transgender but heterosexuals too will be able to relate and stop calling themselves ‘heterosexual’ if they have some human qualities left.

Anyway Xavier Dolan’s favorite film is 'Titanic' and I won’t be surprised if he makes his own version of 'Titanic' with so much love. But only if we small ants get out of our congested holes would we be able to appreciate it.

[1] The Montreal Gazette’s Brendan Kelly, Out magazine’s Adam Rathe, Hollywood Reporter’s Peter Brunette  highly praised Xaviers works. 
[2] ‘400 Blows’ is a film by Francois Truffaut, considered as a landmark in ‘French New Wave’.  
[3] Last film of Bengali film maker Rituparno Ghosh based on his own life and inspired by Rabindranath Tagore. 
[4] Frida Kahlo de Rivera was a Mexican painter who is best known for her self-portraits.

The author is a short film maker with a fresh vision and idea to make films. He is currently pursuing Film Studies in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. His previous two films ‘Uttamda’ and ‘Factory of Caged Animals’ were screened at Short and Documentary Film Festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, Bollywood and Beyond Film Festival, Cut in Film Festival, CMS International Children’s Film Festival and discussed in a report published in Times of India Hyderabad. Currently he owns ANT Productions along with his team through which they want to keep on making radical films.