The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Desperately looking for Dolan

Film. Not entirely a success but a lot of interesting ideas, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan directed by Xavier Dolan is the self-portrait of an artist who’s still seeking legitimacy.


By Caroline Veunac

Xavier Dolan has a strange, shaky and fascinating filmography. A sort of work in progress, an ever-changing mood book whose object would finally be the director himself. Where is Xavier Dolan? That’s the question asked by each one of his films, the question he asks himself when he’s making them, the question we are asking ourselves, the question we sometimes dont’ care about… but not always. The answer is often obvious: in I Killed my mother, Heartbeats, Tom at the Farm, Dolan is also in front of the camera. They are not the films we prefer. Dolan as an actor and his painful narcissism are too much. But at times, the director hides in the story’s folds, the paper chase is inspiring, and it results in his two best films, Lawrence Anyways et Mommy.

Dolan constantly gathers the part of himself which is an admirer with the one that went through the looking glass.

There is an in between version, illustrated by his seventh opus, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. This time, the place of the director in the movie is slightly hidden. All you have to do is read some interviews of the Quebecois to figure out that, as a child, he was a huge fan of Titanic and he wrote a letter to Leonardo Di Caprio. Then we can instantly identify him with the young hero of this first American film, who exchanges letters with his idol, an actor of TV series in pain because he cannot publicly come out of the closet (Kit Harrington, acquainted with fame since Game of Thrones). As he grew up and became himself a fashionable actor, Rupert explains to a political journalist, forced to write his portrait in order to please her boss, how this epistolary frienship allowed him to be who he is now without caring about what other people say. Dolan was a child-actor and we attended his revelation in Cannes, which allowed him to turn into a director rock star when he was 20. Then we suspect that he projects both in the figure of the isolated young star and the one of the emancipated young star.

The fact that an artist is everywhere in his work is nothing new. But out of this commonplace, Xavier Dolan makes something singular. He constantly gathers the part of him that is still an admirer and the one that went through the looking glass. As if Xavier Dolan, despite his self-confidence, was still not able to realize he became the artist he was admiring before. He makes film as if he was pretending to be a director, and that’s what moves us in his narcissistic position.

Yet, that’s what the American criticized during the Toronto Festival, seeing in the film a swelling of the ego. Even though this improbable mix between maturity and immaturity, this desire to exist one day in the eyes of the ones who inspire him, is the subject of The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. The film denounces the contempt in reducing the fans’ aspirations created by stars of popular culture to starry-eyed emotions. The proof: Xavier Dolan once admired Leonardo Di Caprio and that’s why he became Xavier Dolan. The Death and Life of John F. Donovan tells us there is no great or small art, nor great or small artist. There is nothing but the impact art and artists have upon our lives. If the star of a teenage series can give a young man the strength to live with his sexual orientation, this impact is as important as a supposed more serious cause. At least it’s what Rupert as an adult tells to the journalist who is more used to reports on coup in Africa and who confesses she finds his story of privileged and tormented actor a little shallow

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan looks like a failure. The constraints of a big American production seem to have weighed upon the director. But his conformist side in the way he repeats the codes of Hollywoodian films from story to story, don’t completely manage to extinguish his ardour. And we still wonder if, in order to find himself, Xavier Dolan has to free himself from his inner child once and for all, or on the contrary break the superficial layer that seperates him from  this child.