Early Years and Career
The son of schoolteacher Geneviève Dolan and actor and singer Manuel Tadros, Dolan began his acting career at age four. He appeared in television commercials, the television series Omerta (1996) and L’or (2001), and such films as Claude Fournier’s J'en suis! (1997), Roger Cantin’s La forteresse suspendue (2001) and Pascal Laugier’s controversial horror movie Martyrs (2008). He dropped out of school to pursue a career as an actor. He also found steady work dubbing French dialogue into films and TV series distributed in Quebec. He provided the voice of Stan in South Park, Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies and Jacob Black in Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009).
J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother, 2009)
At age 17, Dolan wrote the script for his first feature film, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother, 2009), which he planned to produce, direct and star in. He convinced Quebec TV star Anne Dorval to co-star and invested $150,000 of his own savings into the production. However, he ran out of money halfway through filming. After his distributor and producer backed out of the project, veteran production manager Carole Mondello came on board as executive producer. She helped Dolan complete the film by securing funds from the Quebec cultural development corporation, SODEC.
The semi-autobiographical film centres on a young gay teenager (Dolan) and his love-hate relationship with his mother (Dorval), who decides to send him to boarding school. The film received an eight-minute ovation following its premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival. Peter Brunette of the Hollywood Reporter summed up the opinion of many critics — and even Dolan himself, who admitted the film was “flawed” — by calling it “a somewhat uneven film that demonstrates a great deal of talent.” Brunette also called the film “funny and audacious.” Allan Hunter of Screen International said that it possessed “the sting of shrewdly observed truth.”
J’ai tué ma mère won three prestigious awards at Cannes: the Art Cinema Award, the SACD Prize for screenplay and the Prix Regards Jeunes. It received more honours on the international festival circuit, including a Lumière Award as the best French film made outside France. It went on to receive four awards at the Prix Jutra (now the Prix Iris) including Best Screenplay, Most Successful Film Outside Québec and Best Film, upsetting Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique (2009). However, J’ai tué ma mère was shut out of all competitive categories at the Genie Awards. The film’s distributor, Louis Dussault of K-Films Amérique, labelled the Genies “totally irrelevant.”
The film did receive the Claude Jutra Award (now the Canadian Screen Award for Best First Feature) at the Genies. Dolan was also awarded the inaugural $5,000 Jay Scott Prize for emerging talent from the Toronto Film Critics Association. J’ai tué ma mère was named one of Canada’s Top Ten features of the year by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It was also chosen as Canada’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. However, due to legal problems experienced by the film’s US distributor, Regent Entertainment, it was not released theatrically in the United States until 2013.
Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats, 2010)
Production of Dolan’s second film, Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) began in the fall of 2009. It was financed privately. Dolan wrote, directed, produced, edited and acted in the film. He also had a hand in the costumes and set design. The storyline follows two childhood friends, a young man and woman (Dolan and Maria Chokri), who fall in love with the same boy (Niels Schneider).
Imbued with a seductive musicality, the film won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes and the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival. Back in Canada, it was nominated for four Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture and Best Direction, and the AQCC (Québec association of film critics) award for best Quebec film. It was also named one of Canada’s Top Ten features of the year by TIFF.
Laurence Anyways (2012)
Released in Quebec in May 2012, the much-anticipated Laurence Anyways follows the decade-long journey of a transgender poet and literature professor (Melvil Poupaud) and the impact her transition has on her girlfriend (Suzanne Clément). Executive produced by American filmmaker Gus Vant Sant and made with a budget of just under $10 million, the stylistically bold film — alternately epic and inspired, messy and meandering — was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. It won the Queer Palm award and Clément was named Best Actress. It later received the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at TIFF — which also named it one of Canada’s Top Ten features of 2012 — as well as 11 Genie Award nominations and 11 nominations at the Prix Iris.
In March 2013, a retrospective of Dolan’s first three films were shown in New York as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Canadian Front Series, an annual survey of Canadian films.
Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm, 2013)
Dolan’s fourth feature is an adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard’s award-winning play Tom à la ferme. A sinister, Hitchcockian psychological thriller about a Montréal man (Dolan) who attends his dead lover’s funeral and is tormented by the deceased man’s brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the film marked a rare move for Dolan into genre cinema. Tom à la ferme premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received the FIPRESCI Prize. Shot by acclaimed cinematographer André Turpin (Maelström, Incendies), the visually inventive film plays with the aspect ratio in key sequences to enhance the suspense.
Tom à la ferme was met with mixed reviews upon its theatrical release. It received nominations for eight Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Film, Direction and Adapted Screenplay, and was also named one of Canada’s Top Ten of the year by TIFF.
Dolan’s fifth feature, Mommy, essentially inverts the story of his first film. It is a sympathetic portrait of a middle-aged single mom (Dorval) who retrieves her violence-prone son (Antoine Olivier Pilon) from an institution and attempts to have him homeschooled by a neighbour (Clément). Like Tom à la ferme, Mommy was shot by Turpin and again plays with the aspect ratio. The film is shot mostly in a 1:1 square frame, with certain scenes expanded to widescreen to mirror the expanding inner world of the characters.
Mommy was met with a rapturous response following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where the audience chanted “bravo!” over the end credits. It was favoured by many to win the Palme d’Or and ultimately tied for the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language 3D, 2014).
Mommy went on to become the most successful Canadian film of the year, sweeping both the Canadian Screen Awards and the Prix Iris. It won nine awards at each gala, including best film, director, editing and original screenplay at both. It also won the Prix Iris Billet d’or as the year’s highest-grossing film in Quebec, as well as the award for Most Successful Film outside Quebec. Mommy grossed $3.3 million at the box office in Canada, netting it Telefilm Canada’s $40,000 Guichet d'or cash prize for the year’s highest-grossing French-language Canadian film.
Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World, 2016)
Dolan adapted his next film, Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World, 2016), from the play of the same name by acclaimed French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce. It is Dolan’s first film set outside Canada. It tells the story of a famous playwright who returns to his hometown after a long absence to tell his family he is dying.
Featuring a star-studded French cast including Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard, the film won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival — the first Canadian film to do so since Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997). However, Juste la fin du monde was considered a controversial winner of the Grand Prix, the festival’s second-place award, since it received largely negative reviews from critics. Jon Frosch of the Hollywood Reporter called the film “cold and deeply unsatisfying… a disappointment, even for the Dolan faithful.” Time Out’s Catherine Bray called it Dolan’s “worst by some distance, a talky unsatisfying anticlimax,” and wrote that the “wonderful cast [is] sadly wasted on a screeching melodrama.”
However, the film did have its champions. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “histrionic and claustrophobic: deliberately oppressive and pretty well pop-eyed in its madness — and yet a brilliant, stylised and hallucinatory evocation of family dysfunction.” Variety’s Peter Debruge seemed to straddle both camps, calling the film “a frequently excruciating dramatic experience in which characters seem almost never to stop talking.” He also noted that “there is a welcome maturity to It’s Only the End of the World that was absent in [Dolan’s] five previous features — and also a rare restraint.”
Juste la fin du monde went on to win César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Director and Best Editing, as well as six Canadian Screen Awards, including for Best Director and Best Motion Picture.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2016)
Dolan began prepping his first English-language feature, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, in July 2014. The script, co-written with Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky, Letterkenny), focuses on a pen pal relationship between a young boy and a Hollywood movie star. The idea was inspired by a letter Dolan wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio as an eight-year-old.
The film, which stars Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay, Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates, had a troubled production. Dolan spent two years editing the film and turned down two invitations to premiere it at the Cannes Film Festival. After the first cut of the film clocked in at more than four hours, Dolan cut an entire subplot featuring Jessica Chastain.
When the film finally premiered at TIFF in 2018, critical opinion was mixed at best. Variety’s Peter Debruge called it “A work of stunning technique eclipsed by its increasingly jaw-dropping solipsism.” The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee called it “a film so befuddling to watch and understand that one can sense the tortured post-production process lingering over every scene.” The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo called it “a barely coherent upchuck of raw emotion.” The Death and Life of John F. Donovan was released in December 2019 to mostly negative reviews, scoring 28/100 on the aggregator Metacritic.
Matthias & Maxime (2019)
Dolan’s next film, Matthias & Maxime, saw him return to more familiar ground. It looks at the effects that a single kiss — staged for a film — between two male friends (played by Dolan and Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) has on their friendship and their conceptions of self. NOW magazine’s Kevin Ritchie called it Dolan’s “most engaging and modest film in years… a solid rebound for Dolan in the wake of his obnoxiously self-righteous English-language debut, The Death And Life Of John F. Donovan.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it an “unstoppably garrulous, sweet-natured” film that is filled with “tenderness and gentleness.”
The Montreal Gazette’s Brendan Kelly has described Dolan’s movies as “very personal films that mix melodrama, stylish visual direction and art-film smarts.” Out magazine’s Adam Rathe has observed that all of Dolan’s films portray “characters tangled up in provocative, erotically charged plotlines.” Indeed, the idea of impossible love is a recurring theme in his films. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Dolan stated that his films delve into “the whole process of humiliation by love.”
Although he has been held up as a champion of queer cinema, Dolan has rejected the title, stating, “There’s no such thing as queer cinema. My generation has sexual, sensual and sentimental boundaries that are completely different from those of the generations that precede us… I’ve never been coy about or ashamed of being gay, but I’ve been making a relentless effort, since the first scene of I Killed My Mother, to avoid claiming things. These movies are not fights for rights, they’re movies.”
Dolan has built a reputation for being obsessive about virtually every onscreen detail of his films. In addition to being the writer, director, producer and editor, he also designs the costumes and meticulously oversees the art direction and music selection. “The control of every detail is my guarantee of accessing the type of material I’m satisfied with,” he has said. He has even claimed that the trailer for Laurence Anyways is, frame by frame, exactly as he visualized it before he wrote the screenplay.
In 2013, Dolan’s music video for the song “College Boy” by French new wave band Indochine sparked international controversy for its violent imagery, which includes the beating, shooting and crucifixion of a gay teenager (played by Mommy’s Antoine Olivier Pilon). The video was banned by Quebec’s MusiquePlus, and censored on YouTube and in France. Dolan wrote an open letter for the Huffington Post defending the video, and was quoted in interviews saying, “It seems absurd to me that this video is censored. Is it really more violent than all the films arriving on our screens every day?”
Dolan also directed and edited the music video for Adele’s hit song “Hello,” released in October 2015 as the lead single for her album 25. The first music video shot using IMAX cameras, “Hello” was viewed 50 million times on YouTube in the first 48 hours and became the fastest video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube, doing so in less than three months.
Xavier Dolan narrated the Genie Award-winning short documentary Lipsett Diaries (2010), an animated NFB film about experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett. Dolan continued to dub French dialogue into numerous Hollywood films, including How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Kick-Ass (2010), John Carter (2012) and The Hunger Games (2012). He co-starred in Daniel Grou’s Miraculum (2014) and Charles Binamé’s English-language feature Elephant Song (2014), co-starring Bruce Greenwood, Catherine Keener and Carrie-Anne Moss. He also appeared in Boy Erased (2018), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) and It Chapter Two (2019).
J’ai tué ma mere
- C.I.C.A.E. Award, Cannes Film Festival (2009)
- Prix Regards Jeunes, Cannes Film Festival (2009)
- SACD Prize – Director’s Fortnight, Cannes Film Festival (2009)
- Best First Screenplay, Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film (2009)
- Golden Bayard Award, Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film (2009)
- Best Canadian First Feature, Sudbury Cinéfest (2009)
- Audience Award, Sudbury Cinéfest (2009)
- Best Canadian Feature Film, Vancouver International Film Festival (2009)
- Special Mention, Bangkok International Film Festival (2009)
- Best Film – Honourable Mention, Czech Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (2010)
- Best First Feature Award, Genie Awards (2010)
- People’s Choice Award – International Competition, Istanbul International Film Festival (2010)
- Best French Language Film, Lumière Awards (2010)
- MovieZone Award, Rotterdam International Film Festival (2010)
- Best Film, Jutra Awards (now Prix Iris) (2010)
- Best Screenplay, Prix Iris (2010)
- Jay Scott Prize, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2010)
- Best Actor in a Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2010)
- Best Director in a Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2010)
- Best Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2010)
Les amours imaginaires
- Regards Jeunes Prize, Cannes Film Festival (2010)
- Best International Motion Picture, Prix Iris (2011)
- MovieZone Award, Rotterdam International Film Festival (2011)
- Queer Palm, Cannes Film Festival (2012)
- Best Canadian Feature Film, Toronto International Film Festival (2012)
- Art Cinema Award, Hamburg Film Festival (2012)
- Best French-Language Film, Lumière Awards (2013)
- Achievement in Costume Design, Canadian Screen Awards (2013)
Tom à la ferme
- FIPRESCI Prize, Venice Film Festival (2013)
- People’s Choice Award – International Competition, Istanbul International Film Festival (2014)
- Jury Prize, Outaouais Film Festival (2014)
- Best Screenplay Award, Zinegoak Film Festival (2014)
- Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival (2014)
- Silver Audience Award, Stockholm International Film Festival (2014)
- Best Motion Picture, Canadian Screen Awards (2015)
- Achievement in Direction, Canadian Screen Awards (2015)
- Achievement in Editing, Canadian Screen Awards (2015)
- Original Screenplay, Canadian Screen Awards (2015)
- Best Film, Gal Prix Iris (2015)
- Best Director, Prix Iris (2015)
- Best Screenplay, Prix Iris (2015)
- Best Editing, Prix Iris (2015)
- Most Successful Film outside Québec, Prix Iris (2015)
- Billet d’or, Prix Iris (2015)
- Best Foreign Film, César Awards (2015)
- Best Screenplay for a Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle Awards (2015)
- Guichet d’or, Telefilm Canada (2015)
Juste la fin du monde
- Grand Prix, Cannes Film Festival (2016)
- Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Cannes Film Festival (2016)
- Art Cinema Award, Best Feature, Hamburg Film Festival (2016)
- Best Director, César Awards (2017)
- Best Editing, César Awards (2017)
- Achievement in Direction, Canadian Screen Awards (2017)
- Adapted Screenplay, Canadian Screen Awards (2017)
- Best Motion Picture, Canadian Screen Awards (2017)
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan
- Best Actor – International Competition, CinEuphoria Awards (2020)
- Best Supporting Actress – International Competition, CinEuphoria Awards (2020)
- Member, Order of Canada (2019)