We never see the pivotal kiss that informs every consecutive second of Matthias & Maxime. Xavier Dolan‘s latest, a distant will-they-won’t-they romance about two childhood friends, is a striking departure from the 30-year-old Canadian auteur’s prior work in that he exchanges his typical emotional electricity for hushed restraint. More quietly tender than zealously passionate, Matthias & Maxime tells a rather typical gay romance story of guilt and uncertainty with a behind-camera worldview that’s grown alarmingly adult. It would be inaccurate to label the film an outright disappointment, but it’s nevertheless impossible to shake the sense that Dolan’s fiery artistry has been compromised for a slightly safer film.
Matthias & Maxime opens with a group of late-20s friends partying. Two of them, the titular Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Maxime (Xavier Dolan), are inferred to be friends from childhood, but beyond that we are never given a more explicit understanding of their relationship. During a particularly wild night of drinking, a bet is made for the two them to star in one of their sister’s terrible short film (an apparently “impressionistic but also expressionistic” work of art). Little do either of them know, their fateful bet involves an on-camera kiss, awakening mutual feelings of ambiguous attraction that threaten to either blossom their relationship into something more or render it broken forever.
We never do see the kiss, because Dolan wisely realizes the imperative of leaving the exact details of their encounter undefined. Was it romantic, sensual, awkward? We’ll never know, but we are given a front-row peek into the emotional fallout they face for it. As the film develops, we watch from a distance as both young men process the feelings roused within them. For most of the runtime, Dolan follows each of them separately, observing the individual struggles they face in their everyday lives. Matthias is more obviously perturbed by the new excitement he is confronted with, wrestling to secure its orbit within his existing notions of identity and sexuality. Maxime on the other hand appears to place less monumental importance on the kiss, perhaps slightly embarrassed by the intrigue of romantic possibility but clearly struggling more with his abusive mother.
Matthias & Maxime is at its weakest when it separates its characters, which is unfortunate because a great deal of runtime is devoted to tackling their issues independently. The subplot scenes of Maxime and his withered excuse of a mother are especially tiresome, exposing the rotten foundations of a stereotypically toxic relationship ripe with manipulation and physical violence. The fact that Dolan lingers on these scenes so much feels painfully unnecessary and a little eye-rolling, given the bountiful number of films he has already made by the young age of 30 about mother-son relationships (with more care and attention, I might add). Matthias’ scenes at work are only slightly better, predominantly centered around an amusingly obnoxious client he has to take out to woo, mostly because the client is such a ridiculous contrast to Matthias’ own reticent masculinity.
Though Matthias & Maxime may contain only one of the moments of indescribable bliss more bountifully found in Dolan’s previous films, there is a subtle current of warmth and humor swimming under the surface of its cozy 35mm photography. As with nearly every Dolan film, the rapid-fire Quebecois dialogue between characters has a delightfully musical rhythm to it, and though the memorable needle-drops are few and far between, they also work to their usual cathartic effect. As far as humor goes, the filmmaking sister behind the film’s decisive kiss (Catherine Brunet) is a crowd-pleasing riot, outpouring a never-ending torrent of Franglais slang like the Instagram star she likely aspires to be.
Luckily when Matthias & Maxime’s conventional and overstuffed narrative fails to interest, the two hesitant performances at its warm heart keep it afloat. Freitas and Dolan compellingly complement and contrast each other’s delicate self-understandings with gentle chemistry, the former a fascinating portrayal of masculine identity in crisis, the latter a mousy and bashful young man on the cusp of permanent adulthood (an obviously perfect role for Dolan, who turned 30 in March). They surprisingly don’t share a ton of scenes together, but when they do their tentative gravity towards one another is duly felt.
Even if Dolan feels at times as hesitant as his two lead characters, it’s difficult to not be at least partially satisfied with the heartfelt film he has envisaged. The characteristic expressionism he typically positions dead center in front of the camera may take a muted backseat to its brutally frank narrative, but it’s still there. It’s possible I may be mistaken, but the time period over which the story unfolds feels purposefully distorted to be much longer than it actually is- entire seasons and climates seem to pass over the span of only a couple weeks. Regardless, the authenticity of the emotions at the film’s core are impossible to ignore, and the harsh rawness of its tear-jerking final moments (played brilliantly by Dolan) are as stunningly directed as anything else found in the director’s filmography. Despite the failure of its own story’s hope, Matthias & Maxime grimly insists on a future where our youth might turn to the possibility of happiness and human connection before the cold, doubtful security of isolation.