Following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Matthias & Maxime tells the story of a pair of best friends in their late twenties, coming to terms with their intense feelings for each other. Xavier Dolan’s latest work is a testament to friendship and love, but also examines the evolution of language and sexuality within ourselves and for the world.
Dolan is no stranger to examining some of the most seemingly insignificant threads of the human experience and weaving them into nuanced and complex stories. The entire first quarter of Matthias & Maxime is dedicated to contextualizing Matthias and Maxime’s friendships, as it serves as the perfect ode to a rowdy friend’s group. Each character’s identity is firmly planted in the story and refines the viewer’s understanding of the group dynamic. At the Cannes press conference, Dolan mentioned being in his late 20’s and, for the first time in his life, having a group of friends he could turn to. He expressed wanting to pay homage to that bond through the relationships we see in the film, and he succeeds in capturing this very essence through petty arguments, hilarious one-liners, and heartfelt gestures.
After an amusing first 25 minutes, we get to the catalyst of the story. Titular characters Matt and Max find themselves as the lead actors in a short film by Erika, their best friend’s 16 year old sister. Their roles require an onscreen kiss, and it’s slightly awkward and funny, though not entirely uncomfortable to watch as the friends come to terms with the situation. There isn’t a significant emphasis on the two characters being male, and it isn’t funny because they are two ordinary guys, but more-so because they are Matt and Max, lifelong besties who now have to kiss in their grown age for a stupid dare. Although Erika’s character is a comedic treat for the audience, she also serves as an interesting marker of the generational gap. The notion of allowing yourself to be more open with your sexuality is one that comes a lot easier to Erika’s generation than that of Matt and Max’s, who were raised with black and white hetero-normative standards. Erika and her friends nonchalantly asking the two friends to kiss is a testament to a younger, more honest generation that strays from immature worries born from toxic masculinity. Though younger, Erika and her friends are much more mature and have evolved past the societal limits placed on their identities.
As we move past the shared kiss and get back to real life, Matthias’ feelings fight their way to the surface of his convenient life leaving him overwhelmed and unsure where to turn next. Matthias spends most of the film struggling to accept the reality of his feelings and partakes in all too familiar self-destructive habits, classically pushing away those who he is closest to. Matthias’ arc is unoriginal in terms of LGBTQ+ cinema, but there’s honesty to the story to keep it afloat. He is struggling as he begins to evolve into the person he never really thought he’d be, as he begins to question his job, choices, and relationships. But while we watch Matthias struggle to accept his emotions, we dive deeper in Maxime’s life. Maxime is dealing with a volatile relationship with his mother, a Dolan cinematic staple, and an upcoming move abroad. His character seems much more well adjusted to the idea of being in love with his best friend and is simply waiting for Matthias to arrive at the party, no matter how late. Dolan refuses to entertain any issues of prejudice and instead does an exceptional job at making these conflict the result of love and complex emotions between best friends.
Though I attended three screenings that same day in Cannes, they all happened to be both French and gay. In the case of Matthias & Maxime, Dolan presented a film that also offered a uniquely french-Canadian perspective. Beyond Erika’s nonchalant approach to sexuality, her character also participates in a long-standing conversation within Quebec regarding the preservation of language.
Dolan managed to bring forward a linguistic experience that can be understood by different generations as well as those with various proximities to the Quebecois identity. We see this especially through Erika’s character, whose use of anglicisms are never not hilarious and constantly cause her older brother, Rivette, to blow up in a rage of patriotism. For the younger French generation, it’s a matter of convenience and an easier way to communicate, especially as the English language continues to become more accessible and more bilinguals are born. Language is constantly evolving. Erika casually interweaving English words in her speech is a testament to her world widening without barriers. She adopts words from another language to fit her needs, as many Franglais speakers do, while getting yelled at for this very universal french-Canadian teen experience. But this casual blend of languages simultaneously enrages those of the older generation who feel that their language is slipping away and continues to be neglected due to a tumultuous history between French and English speaking Canada. To the more open and flexible generation, this can be described as a literal fear of the English language. In Quebec, this obsession with language and tradition also feeds into the xenophobic movement that seems to be growing in size, though we’ve gone much further than what the movie has asked us at this point.
Though Dolan himself does not seem to be phased by the politics of language, the choice to season his film with linguistic politics is refreshing, and a fun way to approach a topic that will never truly come to an agreement between generations. Though we could simply interpret this as “kids being carefree” and ignorant of their history, this particular dilemma also goes hand in hand with the theme of personal growth, as Language continues to evolve.
Although it can be argued that Dolan has seemingly retreated in his audacity with this next piece, he compensates for this with fleshed-out characters who live in our very real world. Matthias & Maxime is sweet and sincere, as many have already described it. But it’s also a study of people trying to come as themselves into a world that continues to evolve, with or without the permission of others. And as we see in this film, we can struggle through these chaotic moments; but the beauty of friendship can always help us push past our stalling, and help us do what we’re meant to do: grow
-Asma Horea Abdourahman
Matthias & Maxime screened in Official Competition at this year’s 72nd Cannes Film Festival. The film is currently seeking international distribution