Quebec filmmaking phenom Xavier Dolan always had a 'vision,' says his father
Director Xavier Dolan shields his eyes from the sun as he poses after winning the Jury Prize award for the film 'Mommy,' which was shared with Jean-Luc Godard's 'Goodbye to Language' at the 67th Cannes international film festival on Saturday, May 24, 2014. (AP / Thibault Camus)
By Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, December 16, 2014 7:25AM EST
TORONTO -- When Xavier Dolan was a teenager, his father used to tell people: "My son is a genius."
"I knew he had a vision, my son," said Manuel Tadros, a well-known Quebecois singer and actor. "Everyone was saying, 'Oh, you're a good father and that's why you think that.' I said, 'No, my son is special."'
Now, there are few who disagree.
Dolan is the 25-year-old phenom whose latest film "Mommy" is favoured to nab an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film on January 15. The forceful drama about a mother struggling with a violent teenage son has won such critical acclaim that Jessica Chastain and Susan Sarandon have reportedly signed on for Dolan's next movie.
The charismatic young actor and director burst onto the filmmaking stage as a 20-year-old with "J'ai tue ma mere" ("I Killed my Mother"). But long before then, he was a creative force to be reckoned with, say his friends and family.
"Everything he touches he succeeds in," said Tadros. "I think it's because he always believed in his dreams. He's a boy who when he wants something he goes and gets it."
Dolan was born in 1989 in Montreal to Tadros and Genevieve Dolan, a teacher. His father said the couple separated when he was two and split their time caring for the precocious little boy, who learned to speak early.
Tadros said he often brought his son to film and TV sets and the youngster fell in love with the entertainment industry. As a child, Dolan starred in commercials for the Jean Coutu chain of Quebec pharmacies and appeared in TV movies and series.
"He loved to be on the set because everyone was taking care of him. He was like a little star at this moment," said Tadros.
But Tadros says Dolan's passion for filmmaking truly began at age 11 when his son saw James Cameron's epic "Titanic" and began designing dresses based on Kate Winslet's character.
Dolan was highly intelligent, but he did poorly in school because it was not "fast enough" for him, his father said. His mother struggled to parent their energetic son on her own as Tadros was often touring at this time, he added.
"He was a good kid. He was not a bad kid. He was just a kid that he needed a lot, a lot of attention," he said. "When he conveyed he wanted something, he wanted it now. He was always like two steps ahead. She was exhausted."
Le Devoir film critic Odile Tremblay first met Dolan when he was 16 and her sister was dating Tadros.
"He was so bright and fun and full of light and full of curiosity. He wanted to learn everything," said Tremblay. "He wanted to know poets and directors and just what to read and what to see."
So Tremblay became a mentor to Dolan, who was interested in writing, penning poetry and a semi-autobiographical novella titled "J'ai tue ma mere," which he would later turn into his first film.
She said he and his mother argued constantly while they lived together, but things improved once he moved into his own apartment in Montreal. Tremblay added that he loved women and surrounded himself with female role models as a teenager.
Tadros said Dolan's relationship with his mother has been an important source of artistic inspiration for him.
"She is a very nice person. It's just that there is a kind of electricity between them, and sometimes there is a short. But I think there is a lot of love," he said.
Through his agent, Dolan declined an interview because of his busy schedule. Genevieve Dolan could not be reached for this story.
After graduating high school, Dolan went to a school where he took some cinema classes. But he soon told his father he wanted to drop out to make "J'ai tue ma mere."
"He said, 'Everything they say, I know it already. They don't teach me anything here.' He said, 'I need to do my movie,"' Tadros recalled.
So at 17, Dolan set out to make his first film, investing money he had saved from acting and doing French dubbing on English movies like the "Harry Potter" series. He played the central role of a tempestuous gay teenager, Hubert Minel, and cast Anne Dorval as his conservative mother.
Dorval would become one of Dolan's favourite actresses and a frequent collaborator, as would Suzanne Clement, who played Hubert's teacher. Clement recalled in an interview earlier this year that Dolan was an "ambitious, intelligent, very hyperactive" young man whose movie was fully crystallized in his script.
"J'ai tue ma mere" premiered in the Director's Fortnight program at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where it was embraced by critics and audiences. His father said his career exploded at this point: "It was a wheel he could not stop."
Dolan went on to make three films in as many years: "Heartbeats," "Laurence Anyways," and "Tom a la ferme." All premiered at major film festivals and won accolades, but "Mommy" marked his breakout success.
The film stars Dorval as a widowed mother who accepts the help of traumatized neighbour Kyla (Clement) with her uncontrollable son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Clement said the mood on set was at once "serious and ludicrous."
"Xavier was thrilled, hopping around, happy, bonding immensely with Antoine-Olivier," she said. "There was something very adolescent about them playing around and it was beautiful to see."
"Mommy" premiered to a 13-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Tadros stood in the audience and wept tears of joy.
"I was totally emotional in this moment," he said. "I said to myself, at last, this movie is going to do something much bigger than the others."
Dolan tied for the prestigious Jury Prize with French master Jean-Luc Godard, for his film "Goodbye to Language." In France, Dolan is a massive star, constantly stopped by paparazzi and autograph-seekers, said Marc Cassivi, a cultural critic at La Presse.
Cassivi said "Mommy" represents Dolan's most mature achievement yet.
"He still has that youthful touch and freshness in his films that make them so original, but at the same time he's very mature as a director. I find his scripts sometimes lack a bit of maturity, but the filmmaking is just brilliant," he said.
Cassivi remarked that Dolan's fierce ambition and confidence is unusual for Quebecers and Canadians, and Tremblay echoed this idea.
"In that sense, he's not a true Quebecer, because in Quebec we are full of doubt," she joked.
His father was born in Cairo and said his Egyptian roots influenced Dolan.
"(Egyptians have) been educated to believe in ourselves and to believe that we are here on earth to do something," he said.
One byproduct of Dolan's bravado is that he sometimes gets labelled a "brat" by the press. This characterization is not entirely unfair, said Cassivi with a laugh.
"He's very arrogant and it's something that surprises me because Quebecers are not very fond of arrogant people and pretentious artists," he said.
He added later: "He's a brat, but he's a lovable brat."
"Mommy" has been selected as Canada's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Although Dolan was recently snubbed in the same category by the Golden Globes, he is considered a strong contender for an Oscar nomination.
His next film, "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan" was co-written with Montreal actor-director Jacob Tierney ("The Trotsky") and will be his first in English. Kit Harington ("Game of Thrones") stars as an actor whose life is torn apart by a gossip columnist (Chastain).
All of this success has come before his 26th birthday. Tremblay said she wonders if the pressure will come to affect him.
"I don't know what will change in him," she said. "I know he's strong. But he's young and so famous. And what will happen? I hope everything will be all right. I hope he will not lose something in that."
His father said he worried at first, when Dolan was swept up in a wave of success after "J'ai tue ma mere" premiered. Tadros said he had to have some "hard discussions" with his son about staying in touch with his parents.
But Tadros said Dolan came back fast "on the good track" and he remains loyal to his family and friends. Several times throughout a telephone interview, he repeated: "I'm very proud of my son."
"His humanity is strong. This is what I told my son. I told him, 'Don't let the business eat your morality, please.' And it's never happened."