The latest film from the French-Canadian wunderkind starts strong but ultimately gives you too little reason to care about its characters
After two high-profile, star-studded outings which faced, at best, “mixed” receptions, Xavier Dolan goes back to basics with Matthias & Maxime. It’s a small and intimate piece about the specific moment in a young person’s life when old friendships start to slowly drift away, and how our fear of that moment can accelerate it, or at least make the departure that much more painful.
Dolan himself plays Maxime, a bartender who is a few weeks away from moving to Australia for a two year spell. Reuniting with his friends for a big goodbye at an idyllic lakeside getaway, Maxime is roped into starring in one of his friend's sister’s short film, in which he has to kiss his co-star, his oldest friend Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas).
This kiss, which is never explicitly shown, stirs up buried feelings in both men, but Matthias in particular comes undone rapidly. He’s a high-flying lawyer with a serious girlfriend, but in another life it’s clear that he and Maxime could have been partners, and his carefully constructed life starts crumbling.
It’s a potent premise, and the build up to the fateful kiss is an effective mix of simmering tension and the sort of silly, in joke-filled banter that defines reunions, well acted by the energetic cast. Yet the emotional punch of Dolan’s best work is missing, in large part due to how unlikeable Matthias becomes. Dolan has made toxic characters compelling before, especially in 2014’s Mommy, but even the film itself seems to regard Matthias with contempt, and Freitas’s detached performance doesn’t help.
For much of the film’s run, he’s a navel-gazing coward, so his inner turmoil never feels all that important, though Dolan’s Maxime is far more sympathetic. Struggling with his impending change of circumstances and trying to end his absolutely poisonous relationship with his mother, Maxime is almost always on guard, so the rare scenes in which he actually lets someone in are moving almost by default, fleeting moments of joy feeling like major breakthroughs.
Even with that power in its back pocket, though, Matthias & Maxime still moves too slowly, with noticeable gaps between truly engaging sequences. Dolan’s secret weapon is Harris Dickinson, popping up in an extended cameo as frat bro lawyer Kevin, who Matthias is charged with showing around Montreal. He’s repellent yet hilarious, opening one conversation with the showstopping line “I get into a lot of fights in the office about Islam.” The film bursts to life whenever Dickinson is on screen, who finds the perfect balance between Kevin’s douchey arrogance, and the deep desperation that drives men like him.
This energy is sorely missed in the rest of the film, as are the multifaceted complexities Dolan gives to Kevin, who should be a simple jock, easy to write off. Other characters aren’t so lucky, especially the women, almost all of whom are just odious, whether they’re abusive monsters, shrill old harpies, or teenagers who have the audacity to talk like teenagers. Matthias & Maxime hates its women to the point that it overshadows whatever other points it’s making.
There are moments of brilliance here, both in performance and style (though nothing to match the wondrous aspect-ratio transition from Mommy). Sadly, they’re lost in a haze of slow pacing and sour character work that slowly saps the promising ebullience of the opening act, leaving a fragmented and frustrating end result.
Matthias & Maxime is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch