Film Feature | The Unique Use of Music in the Films of Xavier Dolan

For French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, music often acts as a character itself. It steps in and says the unsayable, allowing characters to communicate through their bodies instead of their words. When he was still in his teens, his directorial debut, J’ai Tué Me Mére, received a standing ovation at Cannes, and ever since then, his work has been a touchstone for art-house cinema and for queer representation. He has also directed music videos, which is unsurprising given the volume of music in his work, the most famous of which is Adele’s ‘Hello,’ where he deployed his signature close-up to full emotional gain. In the comedown lull after Dolan’s latest flick, It’s Only the End of the World, and while we wait for the release of the prosaically titled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, revisiting some of the most memorable musical scenes of his oeuvre may satisfy our needs. He couples visuals and sound to create a sense of harmony or discord, articulating the confusions of youth, lust, loss, fury, and every other emotion on the spectrum.

‘Noir Désir’ – J’ai Tué Ma Mére

This scene from his directorial debut, J’ai Tué Ma Mére, ditches dialogue for the enigmatic and eloquent ‘Noir Désir’ by Vive La Fête. Hubert and his boyfriend, Antoin, have been commissioned by the latter’s mother to splash some paint on her office walls and to give it a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ There is a brief moment of quietude as they ride the elevator– their eyes meet, promptly followed by bashful grins. What this scene displays so well is the messiness of desire, and it does so through the dissonant union between the screeching vocals calling out for solitude (’Je veux être seule’ / ‘I want to be alone’) and the paint-smeared couple falling to the floor, lips locked. The climax of the song is enhanced by the pyroclastic flow of paint, a liquefied Jackson Pollock, melted by the heat of the two as they succumb to carnal urges. Above all, this scene articulates the contradictions of youth, between sight and sound, between what we say and what we actually want.

‘Home is Where it Hurts’ – Juste La Fin du Monde

Kicking off Dolan’s latest film, Juste La Fin du Monde, is Camille’s ‘Home is Where it Hurts,’ a title befitting the film’s hostile family abode, a spider web of bohemian bric-a-brac and unspoken issues. The film is compiled mainly of uncomfortable close-ups and lambasting confrontations that set the cutlery a-tremble, and so the song is a breathy warning of the turbulence to come. If the portentous lyrics are not enough (‘My home has no heart’), then the various close-ups we get of the family members should stir some anxiety. Take Lea Seydoux, who plays the sister of Louis, the prodigal son returned. Her frosty composure and hungry pull at her cigarette don’t exactly say ‘welcome home,’ although her glacial calm, like the hardened fronts of the rest of the family, seem desperate to thaw.

‘Bang Bang’ – Les Amour Imaginaires

One of Dolan’s less vociferous films, Les Amour Imaginaires, tells the story of two friends who fall for the same guy. Hear the heartbreak in the lyrics of Dalida’s rendition of ‘Bang Bang’, see the slowed-motion preparations made by two very determined friends to impress the same curly-haired hunk, and watch them march, with mile-long stares, ready for battle. More like gunslingers in a Western than Romantic idealists, they do not speak, nor do they have to: their torpid movements and the pained vocals render subtitles irrelevant– these two are here to engage in the combat d’amour, right to the desultory dénoument.

‘On Ne Change Pas’ – Mommy

Mommy, arguably Dolan’s most accomplished work to date, features, among a catalogue of other music-infused scenes, a dance to Celine Dion’s ‘On Ne Change Pas’ in the kitchen. Putting their differences aside, the mother, son, and stuttering neighbor submit to the after-party vibes and let swing their awkward arms in-time with Her Majesty’s soaring vocals. One of the most sincere moments in the film, what elevates it is the unifying power of song, and how it can liberate someone like Kyla, who remains trapped behind her unwilling tongue for the majority of the film. In this brief, ecstatic blip in time, they are all Celine Dion, they are chords experiencing harmony.

With composer Gabriel Yared (of The English Patient) onboard for Dolan’s next film, which is just around the corner, we can expect another volley of idiosyncratic musical scenes configured to strum our heartstrings, or pull them apart completely.

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