Xavier Dolan is a filmmaker for whom each new film is an event. His combination of impeccable craft, boldness, sincerity and a queer lens makes his work still feel singular, and while they all explore similar themes, ideas and relationships, his endless curiosity as a filmmaker make each of his films a fascinating variation, familiar and unexpected. After working with a much larger canvas in his last few films, he returns to a kind of pinpoint intimacy with the magical ‘Matthias and Maxime’, a love story of a different kind.
Matthias (Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Dolan) have been friends since they were children. On a weekend away with friends a few months before Max moves to Australia, they get roped into being in an experimental short film by the teen sister of one of their mates, during which they have to kiss. This simple act throws Matthias’ life into chaos, and unlocks for both of them a deep terror at what life is going to be like without the other in it.
At a glance, you might assume that what Dolan is exploring here are two men discovering their sexuality and desire for one another, but the gorgeous surprise is ‘Matthias and Maxime’ is far more complex, far richer and far more moving than that. It’s an acknowledgement of the complexity of male relationships, the degree to which a friendship can be based on the deepest love, and how the intensity of that love can manifest itself into a physical longing for one another. In that sense, the film isn’t a love story in the conventional sense - two people falling in love based on physical and romantic attraction - but it is still very much a love story. Crossing the threshold of their friendship, Matthias discovers a new language with which to articulate his love for his best friend, and with the impending departure ever in his mind, that language consumes his ability to function as a son, partner to his girlfriend Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay), and friend. He pushes Max away in order to protect himself, tumbling towards an emotional inevitability for both himself and Max.
The honesty of that relationship is integral to Dolan’s storytelling, and as a consequence, ‘Matthias and Maxime’ is one of his more intimate, controlled films. There are still flashes of bombast (wonderfully kinetic use of snap-zooms, a glorious shift from 35mm to 65mm at exactly the right moment), but for the most part, the film steps out of the way to let the characters and the screenplay flourish. The result is magical, capturing better than most films the texture and electricity of deep friendships and how they permeate through every facet of life. The screenplay snaps with wit and humour, bolstering the longing and heartache with moments of outrageous, genuine comedy. I found it impossible not to smile through most of it, so sincere was its conceit, so loveable were its characters, and so honest was its heart.
The film also offers a richer portrait of the meaning of family, how family and friendship go hand-in-hand, and how the latter can offer refuge or replacement of the former. Max's biological family, made up of his drug-addicted and aggressive mother Manon (Dolan’s long-term collaborator Anna Dorval, ‘Mommy’) and a brother that’s never present, have been replaced by his found family of his friends and their parents, and as his departure edges ever closer, he has to come to grips with losing both. As Matthias pushes him further away for reasons he never understands, his own need for Matthias and his heartache at losing him increases so that when they finally reveal their feelings, they become two souls clinging desperately to one another, incapable of comprehending how to live without the other. When the film tumbles into its most romantic moments, the screen itself seems to shimmer with electricity, in celebration and exaltation of its protagonists as they finally find one another in the dark. It’s to Dolan’s credit as a filmmaker that he always takes full advantage of everything that makes the cinematic form so potent to unearth the inner worlds of his characters, rather than relying on dialogue to do it. There are moments in ‘Matthias and Maxime’ that take your breath away and leave you with a sense of awe, but at no point do they feel like tricks to impress. They are so intrinsically woven into the characters, and the emotion is there only to raise them even higher than before.
When the film tumbles into its most romantic moments, the screen itself seems to shimmer with electricity, in celebration and exaltation for its protagonists as they finally find one another in the dark.
Both Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas and Xavier Dolan are wonderful as the titular characters, with Freitas in particular beautifully capturing the cripplingly full-bodied experience of desiring someone without the ability to consummate it. Their chemistry together is pure and believable, especially when mixed in with the rest of their friendship group, including Pier-Luc Funk, Antoine Pilon, Adib Alkhalidey and Samuel Gauthier. Dorval is as impressive as ever as another of Dolan’s complicated mother figures, and even ‘Beach Rats’ star Harris Dickinson pops up at one point. What Dolan as director is able to elicit out of his cast is such a potent sense of honesty and play, and that permeates all through the film itself.
It’s hard not to be swept up by ‘Matthias and Maxime’. This is a film made with such love and care, sincerity and grace, showcasing everything that makes Xavier Dolan such an arresting filmmaker and distilled into their purest form. What made my heart soar was in how it laid bare how complex human relationships are, how pointless such binaries as gender and sexuality are, how love between two people is greater than simply defined as friendship or romance. ‘Matthias and Maxime’ refuses to play into such simplistic categories, instead celebrating the wonder of love and human connection without the need for them. Maybe some viewers will try and pigeonhole the protagonists as "gay" rather than just two people in love to make themselves feel more comfortable, much like the bi-erasure in many responses to ‘Call Me By Your Name’, so pointlessly obsessed are we with useless outdated labels, but that would be such a loss to their experience of the richness of this film. ‘Matthias and Maxime’ is a quiet triumph, a tender love story beautifully told, a reminder of how deep the rivers of love can go, how violent travelling them can be and how so very worth the journey is.