Inept ‘Matthias & Maxime’ is the dreariest of gay melodramas

Two longtime chums, losing a drunken dare at a party, agree to kiss for the sake of a scene in a film directed by a mutual friend. The problem is, they’ve locked lips before as teenagers, kicking off a series of increasingly tense post-mortems until the happily-ever-after moment. Many no-name gay films available for streaming on Netflix share the world-historic banality of this premise, but Xavier Dolan I Killed My Mother (2009), Heartaches (2010) ,and Mommy (2015) appears on the credits of Matthias & Maxime, the worst film he as written and directed to date, insulting in its commitment to averageness and disinterest in basic coherence.

While there’s nothing wrong with a movie about continuous parties, a two-hour movie in which it’s hard to figure out when parties begin and end, where they take place, or basic character names has problems. The partying is for Max’s sake. Played by Dolan with a birthmark on his right cheek that looks like a burn injury, he’s leaving for Australia indefinitely, placing his mother (Anne Dorval of Dolan’s 2015 Mommy) in the care of her sister. At one of those festivities, set a few days before Max’s departure, the guest most disturbed, judging by the closeups lavished on him, is Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), an ambitious lawyer and Max’s closest friend. The usual bedlam ensues, and Dolan gets the contours of the all-night drinking and smoking and music playing right (French-speaking Canada apparently is one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere whose residents still tolerate indoor smoking). At the behest of Erika, Matthias’ sister, the kiss happens. Dolan makes the right filmmaking decision: by cutting before the uncomfortable men’s lips touch, he puts viewers in the position of figuring out the consequences, a bit like what Anton Chekhov did in his own story of a kiss’ ripple effects.

After The Event, however, Matthias & Maxime devolves into slack filmmaking. Dolan hasn’t written enough sides to his and D’Almedia Freitas’ roles to do anything except pout exquisitely in medium shot, which, in the case of the latter, is quite enough, thanks. To compensate Dolan includes several montages over which the loud insistence of the score threatens to kick the audience out of their chairs; there’s a scene where Matthias, attempting like John Cheever’s swimmer to wash away his sins, swims furiously in a cold lake, gets lost, and swims back. It might’ve have more resonance if Dolan in a few strokes defined Matthias as the sort of person who would foolheartedly swim in a cold lake. Meanwhile Max can’t leave without a recommendation letter from Matthias’s father, for whom he once worked: a contrivance that doesn’t go anywhere except a phone call between a secretary and Max’s, whose horrible English isn’t even tweaked for comic purposes.

“Consistency” is a meaningless buzzword for the Quebecois auteur. His messy movies reflect the tumult driving the agonies and loins of his characters. Heartaches, one of the decade’s most charming queer films, limned the predicament of a young man much like Max (also played by Dolan) who lusts after a straight man but was more affecting and filmed its party sequences with more élan (it’s also shorter). Insofar as Dolan acknowledges a cinematic lineage, the inchoate movies of John Cassavetes would be the starting point, and not just because Dolan relishes picking at the hypocrisy of the nuclear family: like Cassavetes he often doesn’t know where the hell to place the camera or what shot a scene demands, his idea of truthful storytelling. Ol’ John might have understood the point of a stripper club scene, filmed with the solemnity of Gunnar Björnstrand agonizing over his faith in Winter Light (1963). Beach Rats‘ Harris Dickinson appears as a would-be client out on the prowl whose oafish, unctuous heterosexuality is meant to complement Matthias’ psychosexual writhing (you would never know Dickinson is a fine actor from the lines he’s given). But the coup de grace: a Dolan flick can’t exist without a mommy issue or two; Matthias & Maxime stops in place for the sake of reprising the shouting matches between Dolan and Dorval from Mommy with the actors belching cigarette smoke like dragons.

I admit to enjoying in an abstract manner the perversity with which Dolan denies these two beautiful men a scene in which they can enjoy each other’s bodies with the abandon they deserve besides an intense countertop groping; for once Dolan blocks their movements with imagination, notably when he films Max from behind a curtain as Matthias submits to his impulses. But seventy minutes into a movie which has generated faint interest in its characters is too interruptus a coitus: seventy minutes of mortifying female characters and overwrought dynamics. Not many laughs either, but then Dolan has no talent for wit whether spoken or filmed: even Heartaches’ po-faced approach gets in the way of its scenario. But if there’s any conclusions audiences who’ve followed Dolan can draw from the farrago of Matthias & Maxime, it’s this: he’ll be back.

GRADE: C

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