If there’s one term that Xavier Dolan probably never wants or needs to hear again, it’s “enfant terrible.” Irresistible to use when the Québécois auteur was 19, rattling out of the gate with his antsy, angry lash-out of a debut, “I Killed My Mother,” it’s followed him doggedly through a series of variously spiky, variably strong follow-up features. But Dolan has just turned 30, and with his eighth film, “Matthias & Maxime,” capping a filmography longer and more entrenched in its creative identity than those of many directors comfortably his senior, it’s time to put the label to rest. For “Matthias & Maxime” is not in any sense the work of an enfant terrible: A wistful, low-key love-and-friendship study, and something of a back-to-basics reset after his elaborate English-language misfire “The Death and Life of John P. Donovan,” it feels at once younger and older, sweeter and more seasoned, than Dolan’s last few films.
Most of all, in its relaxed assemblage of themes and cinematic motifs from previous Dolan joints — a relationship dynamic from “Heartbeats” here, a swirly visual flourish from “Laurence Anyways” there — “Matthias & Maxime” feels comfortable: not out to scout new stylistic territory, but confident in the turf it covers, often gorgeously so. Or maybe that’s the wrong adjective for a romance built entirely on the notion of masculine discomfort: The frayed nerves of the two title characters, childhood best friends who haven’t quite nailed down their feelings for each other in over 20 years together, give this small-framed film a current of uncertainty to counter the accomplished elegance of its craft.
This is not an especially subversive story, beginning as it does with a plot gambit that recalls, of all unexpected reference points, Lynn Shelton’s shaggy bromoerotic comedy “Humpday” — albeit distinguished by the tender queer gaze that Dolan brings to his characters’ hesitant fraternal intimacy. On a weekend away with their all-male crew of longtime friends, crisp lawyer Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Fritas) and the more overtly damaged, hard-up Maxime (Dolan, directing himself for the first time since 2013’s “Tom at the Farm”) are inveigled into acting in a student short directed by a pal’s bratty younger sister; only once they’ve committed are they told that the film requires them to kiss. Reluctantly, anxiously, they go ahead with it, their friends jeering from the sidelines; Dolan, acting as his own editor as usual, sharply cuts to black before their lips touch. A kiss is just a kiss, maybe, but “Matthias & Maxime” has a little more baggage to unpack before we get there.
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As it turns out, the men have kissed before, in ways they mumblingly claim to remember a little differently. That’s not a sign that they’re entirely secure in their platonic friendship, though even on those terms, they’ve been drifting apart of late, bound more by mutual friends and familial affections than their own connection. With a major professional promotion ahead of him, Matthias regards his noisy, boisterous circle of friends slightly askance, suggesting to his girlfriend Sarah (Marilyn Castonguay) that perhaps it’s time he put away childish things, the lads included.
Maxime, meanwhile, is set to travel to Australia for two years, leaving behind a life of accumulated disappointments and emotional burdens. Looming largest among those is his abusive ex-addict mother Manon (Anne Dorval), in a strand that plays rather like a miniature version of Dolan’s toxic-parenting drama “Mommy,” only with the operatic fighting spirit partially knocked out of it. Rather poignantly played by the director with every body part downcast, save for a defiant red birthmark owning his cheek, Maxime is a man who has largely accepted his first-round losses in life. With the date of his departure for Melbourne nearing, tracked on screen with time-marking title cards, the increasingly nominal best friends have mere weeks to decide what their relationship even is; in its present state, a two-year separation looks to be terminal.
Dolan has an eye and ear for the ambiguous desires and jealousies powering any male relationship — even ones that will never culminate in a kiss. “Beach Rats” star Harris Dickinson has a small, witty role as a douchebag lawyer entrusted to Matthias’ professional care over the course of a business trip, his fratboy straightness so exaggerated as to seem like a front — though as we watch him from Matthias’s addled, anguished perspective, perhaps his queerly flirtatious gestures aren’t all they seem. Matthias and Maxime’s friends, too, are a hive of conflicting, passive-aggressive tensions and prejudices, though Dolan’s script skimps a little on their individual characterization: Ultimately, his film is as closely, watchfully in love with its two leads as they are with each other.
Right down to its airport-bound narrative deadline, then, Dolan plays this in many respects as a traditional will-they-won’t-they romance, complete with tender closeups of nervously longing faces, the seasonal crackle of autumn in its atmosphere, and a typically handpicked pop-indie soundtrack that plays like mixtape one close friend might make for another to suggest something too hard to say. The zithering, tremulous ache of Phosphorent’s “Song for Zula” — “I saw love disfigure me/Into something I am not recognizing” — comes in for exquisite repeat use, its lyrics ideally on the nose, given the circumstances.
Dolan remains an unabashed sensualist, then, flooding his screen with feeling in the tangible form of sound and color. Smoothly switching between stocks and aspect ratios, cinematographer André Turpin coats proceedings in blazing reds and smoky blues, painted in Kodak and looking wet to the touch. Dolan even teases himself, gently, via the unseen short film-within-a-film that sets everything off, described by its naive young director as a blend of expressionism and impressionism, and by her mother as being “like Eldomóvar” — a misplaced attribution Dolan has heard more than a few times in his own career. “Matthias & Maxime” isn’t all that much like Eldomóvar, or Almodóvar, for that matter: It is a lot like a Xavier Dolan film, however, and that’s no bad thing. A decade into a lively career, the enfant terrible has become his own master.