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Where Have All The Good Men Gone? The ‘Auteurs’ 2018 Buried
Ella Kemp , January 5th, 2019 12:18

2018 came a close with a rich bank of new films, invigorating and original. But what ever happened to two of the most anticipated independent features of the year?

On 12 April 2018, the Festival de Cannes announced the first wave of films in the 71st edition. The official competition boasted an exciting rostra of names; fewer veterans, fresher international potential. Only two titles represented the United States: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and Under the Silver Lake, the follow-up to It Follows from the relatively green indie filmmaker David Robert Mitchell.

To the surprise of confident predictors, Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan skipped Cannes this year. His new (and first English-language) film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, began a speculative conversation on the cutting room floor: Jessica Chastain’s character was scrapped in the edit, and, maybe consequentially, news of a premiere was kept under wraps. But this changed on 1 August, when it was confirmed that Xavier Dolan would be premiering his next feature, finally, in the Special Presentations selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

The wheels began rolling on two of the most anticipated releases of the year. The hype machine was kicked into action because these films were made by promising, independent minds – generous critics could root for them, and a new generation of moviegoers could fall in love. But the year, the one that could have belonged to them, is now ending. Festivals screened the films, and then no one else did. The reviews ranged from average to abysmal, and what could have been celebrated has now been buried. Mitchell’s film is theoretically scheduled for a Spring 2019 release and, well, Dolan has just finished shooting his next one.

“A catastrophically boring callow and indulgent LA mystery noir”, is how the Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw described Under the Silver Lake after its premiere in Cannes. Mitchell paints an inky black odyssey, a skittish ode to neo-noir adventures full of pop culture easter eggs. A bumbling young man (Sam, played by Andrew Garfield) lazily, but with persistence, investigates the disappearance of his neighbour Sarah – his blonde bikini-clad dream girl who spent one evening with him, just watching a movie, before vanishing. Unemployed and uninspired, Sam still rises to the occasion; with his smarmy, selfish torment in tow, he goes all the way down the rabbit hole to find her.

Bradshaw’s review might seem incendiary, but it’s not the only one – Silver Lake took hit after hit. “The film’s brazen sexism is matched by the shameless unoriginality of the conspiracy theories and clues that take up most of its runtime”, said Elena Lazic on the Seventh Row. Southland Tales and Search Party offered recurring points of comparison, highlighting the frustrating inconclusiveness and the film’s navel-gazing ambition over any commendable characteristics that could be drawn from these comparisons, or any other original qualities. Under the Silver Lake was scalded for many reasons, and after making everyone wait so long, and it has now been put on the naughty step until we’re ready to give it another chance.

When he was eight years old, Xavier Dolan wrote a letter to Leonardo Di Caprio. “I am one of your fans”, he explained, “You are a great actor and I admire you.” This is public knowledge, not because the letter leaked, but because Dolan trusted his audience at TIFF in September 2018 enough to read these words out loud, ahead of the world premiere of his new film. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan tells the story of a young boy, Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay), who maintains a correspondence for several years with a world-famous actor, John F. Donovan (Kit Harington). The film flits between Rupert’s childhood, reckoning with his admiration and completely confident ambition, and an adult account in which an older Rupert (Ben Schnetzer), now an actor and author, tells sceptical journalist Audrey Newhouse (Thandie Newton) about the words of the man who shaped his life.

It was difficult to make eye contact with most people in Toronto, after a screening that felt like a swansong as much as a suicide note. Whichever way you swayed, this was not a middling movie. For Ebert Voices, Brian Tallerico wrote, “Dolan’s film falls victim to his worst tendencies”. You had to address the huge, messy bags of feeling thrown all over the screen. There was no way to avoid the dated stylistic choices and boyish, unabashed scripting, from the filmmaker who left Twitter because of a tumultuous relationship with fans, and everyone else who wasn’t one. At TIFF, the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee said, “It starts to feel like Dolan is parodying a Dolan movie”. It’s impossible to remove the director’s name from his work, as it’s sung in pop music and lit up in bright colours that tint every world he creates. But when the songs sound fake and the colours look brash, there is no way of caring for John F. Donovan if you just don’t like Xavier Dolan.

These men and their onscreen alter-egos, Mitchell with Sam, Dolan with both Rupert and John, are a headache. The directors play around with genres and gimmicks, from stylistic flexes through Oasis, Blink-182 and Celine Dion for Dolan to the Hitchcockian winks and unintentional comic-book circle jerks with Mitchell (he assures us that Andrew Garfield flicking through a Spider-Man comic is nothing but a happy coincidence). The young men are feeling their way through professional ambition and emotional vulnerability, onscreen and off. Did we want their films to see if they’d change? Or were the bold and heightened self-portraits exciting just because they were so unashamed? The pre-festival hype questions the trust in an artist who has yet to confirm the quality of their art. If this sense of excitement is required to make us stop and notice something, just one specific something in a sea of neverending somethings passing us by at every waking moment, how do you reconcile the disappointment in the product with the loyalty to your own idea of it?

If you hold them up to the light, the qualities that established the directors’ reputations – which then established the hype – do shine through. The Telegraph’s Tim Robey praised Under the Silver Lake as a film “fascinating to wrestle with” while Emily Yoshida dubbed it as “admirably cuckoo” on Vulture. Mitchell was admired for the sharp cinematography and suspenseful score on It Follows, establishing itself as a gripping mood piece spreading warnings about teenagers and the demons they can’t pin down. It’s no wonder Sam can’t resist a bit of conspiracy porn. When Kate Taylor for Globe and Mail said, “Dolan's English-language debut whinges about personal neuroses rather than probing homophobia or celebrity”, she wasn’t wrong. At once a fantasy and hardly fictional at all, the story of a starstruck kid in Donovan isn’t really trying to disguise Dolan’s own past, as the director first alluded to the letter to Di Caprio in his self-starring debut I Killed My Mother in 2009 – now bringing everything back full circle. Allan Hunter wrote positively about Donovan for Screen Daily – making it the only ‘fresh’ review currently on Rotten Tomatoes – saying, “Dolan is often at his best mining personal experience for lush, revealing, heart-on-the-sleeve melodrama”.

There is something unnerving about what these mirrored surfaces reveal. In UTSL Sam looks young, but he’s in his early 30s – and though It Follows felt like the first major event for Mitchell, he is 44 years old. Sam consumes every bit of culture he can, incapable of finding any meaning in his work or relationships while he basks in his narrow-mindedness and mansplaining tendencies, which just stink of skunk spray. A lot of the film’s criticism focuses on its portrayal of women, who are almost always semi-naked and rarely given any depth past the dirty gaze that Sam seldom tries to conceal. This can be, and has been in some cases, understood as Mitchell’s intentional building of character – Sam is somewhat detestable and ignorant, but we’ve agreed to follow the world seen through his eyes, therefore everyone just looks as bad as he thinks. But perhaps his psychological insight isn’t as rich as Mitchell, or we, might have hoped. Misogyny isn’t sexy – are the risks of such a dedicatedly flawed narrator worth it?

So much of Rupert’s story and his understanding of Donovan feels like Dolan’s own unraveling. “I don’t care that John was untalented”, Rupert tells Audrey. This can’t help but sound like a hands-up confrontation, almost a surrender, from the director who feeds his love of pop music and passionate, insecure artists into another story of boys who cry. If you like his work, this makes sense – but The Death and Life of John F. Donovan asks to be appreciated under a filter of forgiveness. John Powers dissected Mitchell and UTSL for Vogue, but his analysis rings true for both men up for scrutiny: “He seems to be suffering from a case of Young Male Genius Syndrome, the belief that his talent is so special that he’s ready to join the ranks of the Lynches, Paul Thomas Andersons, and all those ’70s superstar directors”.

The reviews of both films embraced and disgraced the ambition that felt at once personal and ridiculous in its grandeur. On the surface, anticipation has a glittering facade – but the aftermath has proven that gold can sometimes ring hollow. Sceptics win and ‘auteurs’ retreat, their egos bruised and their films postponed. David Robert Mitchell and Xavier Dolan put their hearts on the line with the confidence that anguish and insecurity would pad out their personalities, heavily embedded in their narratives, to win over audiences. These films might get released next year, or they might stay buried. Xavier Dolan has just finished shooting his eighth feature, Matthias and Maxime. David Robert Mitchell has written the script for Fox’s Man Alive, and is now working on an adaptation of They Hear It. And so the hype machine whirrs on, whether we like it or not – with the hope that what comes next should just obliviate what we failed to understand in 2018.