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Youth not wasted on Dolan

Director-writer-actor of 'Heartbeats,' who has won prizes at Cannes, is a mere 21.

March 05, 2011|Mark Olsen

French-Canadian director-writer-actor Xavier Dolan, who turns 22 later this month, already has had two films play -- and win prizes -- at the Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious international venue that some filmmakers can toil a lifetime to never get near.

He dropped out of college to make the first, "I Killed My Mother," actually financing the micro-budget film about coming out and learning to live with an overbearing parent partly with savings from his childhood acting work. The second, "Heartbeats," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and is also available on video-on-demand, tells the story of two friends vying for the affection of the same young man.

Dolan starred in both films, and in the case of "Heartbeats," he also edited the film, designed the costumes and handled the art direction. In addition, he set the story of best friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) falling for Nicolas (Niels Schneider) in the same Montreal neighborhood where he and his castmates live, giving the film the same sort of verisimilitude found in indie darling Lena Dunham's feature debut, "Tiny Furniture."

"Maybe I'm not going to write the next great script about a bank robbery. That's not my comfort zone," Dolan said, speaking by phone from Montreal.

Where he feels most comfortable, he said, is making movies about the world he knows intimately, the world of Mile End, a youth-oriented enclave roughly equivalent to Brooklyn or Silver Lake, with denizens who sport a mix of vintage clothes and contemporary designer wear and where bumping techno music plays alongside retro tunes like the Italian-language version of "Bang Bang" that forms "Heartbeats'" romantic refrain.

"I basically used coffee shops and places I actually hang out in real life," Dolan said, "so all the cafes and libraries are actually places where I really go. We had no time in pre-production to scour the city and look for the best-looking places. We used everything we knew, which was faster.

"I assume these places participate in the intimacy in the film. It's a matter of the time and the money we didn't have, but in the end it gives some personality to the film, it makes it more personal and gives it a glimpse of the real lifestyles here for young people."

Showbiz veteran

Even if his youthful voice and fresh style make him a Quebecois counterpart to such American indie upstarts as Dunham and Drake Doremus, Dolan is a showbiz veteran. He first appeared onscreen at age 4 in a series of television commercials and continued to act through childhood, as well as doing voiceover work on projects, including the French-Canadian version of "South Park."

Frustrated by what he felt to be a dearth of quality roles, he opted to begin writing his own material, also making the leap to directing. His actors say that he possesses a maturity that belies his years.

"I never think about his age. I don't feel it when he's working," said Chokri, a relatively grown-up 28 by comparison. "He's really confident and mature in how he controls a set and the way he communicates with actors. I never see his age. It's not important when you're working with him. It's not the point."

He's also markedly calculated when talking about his work. "I thought for the films of this early period of my life, I should really stay personal," he said, "so that people would stay interested, not think, 'Who is this jerk going on about rocket science?' Not because I'm some narcissistic idiot, but because I could see from the experience of 'I Killed My Mother' that people were actually interested in this kind of very voyeuristic thing."

In describing Dolan's filmmaking style, reviewers have invoked such names as Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodovar and Wong Kar-wai as influences. Dolan -- who is already working on his next project, "Laurence Anyways," which will star French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud in the lead -- dismisses such notions. He insists that he's his own man.

"My relationship with critics is getting stranger and stranger," said Dolan, a slight pique rising in his voice. "I can't make them believe that the influences on the film are in literature and visual arts but not really the cinema. I'm not a cinema nerd. I would love to be one, but I'm a music nerd, I'm a painting nerd ... there are a lot of important films I haven't seen."

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