There are some directors you wish would never grow up, and Xavier Dolan — a man whose fire hose of emotions could at times make you giddy — is one. Before he turned 27, with movies like “Laurence Anyways” (2013) and “Mommy” (2015), Dolan seemed to have decided that restraint was a dirty word and expressiveness his guiding principal.
No longer, maybe. In “Matthias & Maxime,” he presents an attenuated tease, a dreary dance of will-they-or-won’t-they romantic provocation. Set among a small group of friends in Montreal, the movie eyes the flaccid fallout when two of them are goaded into sharing a kiss for a student film. Max (Dolan), a shy bartender whose strawberry birthmark emphasizes his vulnerability, seems mostly unfazed by the smooch. Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas), however, an ambitious suit in a dissatisfying heterosexual relationship, is very much fazed. For the rest of the movie, he will mope and mutter and rage, his self-torture culminating in an urgent, kitchen-counter rendezvous that leaves poor Max — and the audience — more confused than ever.
This exploration of suppressed homoerotic longing would be infinitely more moving if the pair had even a smidgen of sexual chemistry. Or less noisy friends: In too many scenes, the group’s rowdy cross-talk only disrupts the fragile mood created by Max’s bewilderment. Yet Dolan is a wonderfully sensitive actor, and, when permitted, he helps us link Max’s increasingly battered body (courtesy of a Dolan regular, the tyrannical mother) to his internal hurt.
That mother, though. Played by the glorious Anne Dorval, she’s a harpy in a housecoat, wheedling for money and hurling hard objects. Every time she appeared, my spirits lifted and I thought, Welcome back, Xavier.
Matthias & Maxime
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Watch on Mubi.