First look at Xavier Dolan's John F Donovan is conspicuously timed... but very exciting

Joanna Posted by Joanna at May 12, 2017 15:59:31 May 12, 2017 15:59:31

With the Cannes Film Festival a week away, we finally get our first official photos from the set of Xavier Dolan's highly-anticipated The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. The film is not screening in Cannes because they’re not finished shooting but it does look fantastic (click here to see more photos). Xavier's English-language debut stars an A-list dream team which is so thrilling it should be read in all caps: Jessica Chastain! Susan Sarandon! Natalie Portman! Jacob Tremblay! Thandie Newton! Kathy Bates! Kit Harington! Jared Keeso! Sarah Gadon! And that's barely the beginning of the names. With one exception: no Adele. As you know, Xavier directed the video for Hello and she’s said that she would consider acting if he was directing. Even with no Adele though, the film, from these images at least, appears to be living up to its hype and long gestation.

Here’s the official synopsis:

A decade after the death of an American TV star (Kit Harington), a young actor (Jacob Tremblay, then Ben Schnetzer) reminisces (about) the written correspondence he once shared with the former, as well as the impact those letters had on both their lives.

But it's the timing here that's especially interesting. The film is slated for a 2018 release, but both Collider and The Playlist report it could be for the festival circuit later this year. Xavier, who won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2014 for Mommy and the Grand Prix in 2016 for his highly-polarizing It's Only the End of the World, also served on the jury in 2015, and has been a festival mainstay since he first hit the Croisette in 2009 at 20 (!) with I Killed My Mother. It's Only the End of the World (which I thought was ambitious but quite suffocating at TIFF) won the Grand Prix despite a scathing reception, and now Xavier is opting out from the "culture of trolling, bullying and unwanted hatred" at Cannes.

 

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But it kind of feels like he’s still using Cannes, granting access to his most high-profile project yet right before the festival to ensure positive buzz or word of mouth before it kicks off... in spite of his absence. If people are going to be talking about what he's up to anyway, and why he's not around, he might as well try to control the conversation. 

As I wrote last September, there was a near-six month split in production on Donovan - in part due to talent availability, but also for Xavier himself to enjoy a very well-deserved break. He was open and honest about how he felt his back-to-back schedule led to the work suffering and wanted to prove his critics wrong and maintain his high standards by putting out the best work he could. The Collider piece, which is very sympathetic to Xavier, stresses this. It explains that the year-and-a-half long shoot is to accommodate its star cast and multiple locations, while stressing that the film is in post-production as they shoot. Work is being done and time is being spent wisely. This is not Apocalypse Now. The kicker?

"We hope you’ve enjoyed the first behind-the-curtain look at a very precise and laborious production."

"Very precise." "Laborious." Already they’re branding the film, setting it up as the work of an auteur. With a favourite theme: once again, this time in The Death and Life of John F Donovan, he is committed to examining mother-son relationships... notably, in this movie, between Natalie Portman and Jacob Tremblay's characters.

And he will not let you call that repetitive, because as Xavier says, "You know, that realization didn’t bother me. I could spend the rest of my life talking about mothers and sons and still be making a completely different movie than the last.”

So he wants us to know something special is coming. He wants to whet our appetite and show he doesn't need Cannes to be a star director, he is one in his own right. But we already knew that. And though there are answers to "what's taking him so long to release Donovan?," these pictures and quotes only make us wonder even more when we are going to see this new movie, and is this the appropriate amount of hype, or is it too much too soon? With Xavier, it's always hard to tell, which makes him so much fun to watch.