The line to get into the press and industry screening of Xavier Dolan’s latest film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, premiering at TIFF as a special presentation, wasn’t short. But to say whether critics were lining up out of genuine interest in the Quebecois filmmaker’s work or to satisfy their morbid curiosity is difficult. His past features, while gaining him awards at major festivals such as Cannes, have been divisive, and the production of this new film has been infamously difficult, with Dolan himself declaring on Instagram that all the scenes he had shot with Jessica Chastain would remain on the cutting room floor. In the past, his films have all had an epic quality to them, from their hyper evocative style made of pop music cues, slow-motion and extreme close-ups to their increasingly large and starry ensemble casts (It’s Only the End of the World has Gaspard Ulliel acting alongside Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard). But The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, with all the mystery surrounding its production and illustrious international actors, promised to be Dolan’s biggest yet.
Dolan’s work has always been highly personal, with himself playing the main protagonist in three of his films (I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Tom at the Farm). In The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, the director has two seemingly wildly different yet connected surrogates. Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) is a little, unrooted American child actor living in England and finding refuge from bullying in the TV shows of actor John F. Donovan (Kit Harington), a 20-something rising star with whom Rupert starts an unlikely years-long epistolary correspondence across continents. At the premiere of the film at TIFF, Dolan read to his audience a letter he had written to Leonardo DiCaprio when he was a child, and although he too was a child actor, Dolan now occupies DiCaprio’s place as well: he has become a star himself. Donovan is adult Dolan helping his younger self become who he believes he was always meant to be — that is, a Palme d’Or winning director. In case this wasn’t evident, Rupert’s school teacher explains to his mother that she rarely meets students who don’t have simply a future, but a destiny. Dolan has gone beyond the personal to make a film that is blatantly self-aggrandizing.
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Eleven years later, Rupert is 21 (and now played by the great Ben Schnetzer) and has written a book about his relationship with Donovan, who died under unknown circumstances all those years ago. Rupert’s interview with journalist Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton) gets off on the wrong foot: she hasn’t read the book and has indiscreetly expressed her contempt for the young man’s work. This young-adult version of Rupert is the most evident stand-in for Dolan the director, and allows him to finally address his most difficult audience: the critics. At some point in their exchange, Newhouse admits to Rupert that she can’t connect with his and/or Donovan’s sad, first-world life stories when she’s just been reporting on deadly conflicts around the globe. What follows is a passionate call for universal compassion from Rupert, at the end of which Audrey is convinced, and even a little seduced by the young man’s beating humanist heart. But what transpires from such a glaring defense of Dolan’s favourite film topics (relationships, impossible love, anger at your mom) is an overpowering anxiety. Despite all his awards at his precocious age, Dolan can’t seem to trust his own work and himself and finds it necessary (and elegant) to devote an entire film to its virulent — as opposed to thoughtful and measured — justification. Are you letting the work speak for itself if the work is actually only speaking for you?
Since Rupert finds that he has a lot in common with his idol, and both of these characters embody all the struggles that Dolan has addressed in his previous films, fraught mother-son relationships once again are central to the film. Rupert’s mother Sam (Natalie Portman, another of Dolan’s mothers with bad hairstyles) never made it as an actress, and the surprisingly but annoyingly articulate 10-year old resents her for resenting his own pursuit of acting. His young age and typically childish arrogance, however, make Rupert’s anger seem exaggerated and not to be taken too seriously (whether this was Dolan’s intention or not remains unclear). Perhaps the director’s new obsession with the judgement of film critics, in a strange transference, has made him less worried about maternal responsibility. Or perhaps he has grown up since his incendiary debut, the aptly titled I Killed My Mother, which he directed at age 20, and now has more compassion for the challenges of motherhood. Still, Sam’s anger at Rupert when she discovers his secret long-distance relationship with the actor seems completely overblown and just an excuse for another screaming match and dramatic rain-soaked reunion, both of which fail to resonate.
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For a film revolving around an actor destroyed by a bad reputation, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan remains frustratingly vague about the media’s indiscretions that bring John’s downfall. An incriminatory picture is only mentioned, and John’s agent (Kathy Bates) makes little sense when she reprimands his attempts to move on from scandal but refuses to help him in any way. Dolan’s anxieties about journalists only appear more abstract, unjustified and excessive as John progressively loses his way. His tragic end, like that of Ulliel’s character in It’s Only The End of The World, is yet another distasteful suggestion that Dolan buys into the myth of the destructive artist dying on stage. But perhaps there is another trace of growth in Rupert’s fate: there is mention of a scene he has to shoot that day, and someone is there to pick him up after his interview. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is Dolan at once more arrogant and more humble than ever, but his anxiety remains a weakness that is hard to have compassion for.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.