One of my most anticipated releases of 2018 was always going to be whatever Xavier Dolan did next. Having been enraptured by his 2014 film Mommy, I went out of my way to watch his whole filmography, which is remarkably extensive for his age. He made his directorial debut as a teenager and made more or less a film a year ever since. His work on films like I Killed My Mother, It’s Just the End of the World and the aforementioned Mommy, presented a dynamic personal style that could be called Aesthetic Verité, blending a handheld intimacy and spontaneity with swooning emotional expressions and soundtrack choices invoking high pop melodrama. Once seen, moments like Steve (Antoine Olivier–Pilon) reaching out towards the film’s 1:1 aspect ratio screen and forcing it open into widescreen, as the sentimental strains of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” play, are not easily forgotten.
So when it was announced that he would be making his English language debut in December of 2014, working with then-rising stars Kit Harington and Jessica Chastain, as well as veteran screen icons Kathy Bates and Susan Sarandon, I immediately made a mental note to scour the local cinema listings awaiting the film’s release. Except that release didn’t happen. The film, eventually titled The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, was never released theatrically in the UK. Why should a film from an exciting new director with a now A-list cast (this was in 2018 when Chastain and Harington were household names) not get a theatrical release?
The answer seemed to lie in it just not being a very good movie. Critics panned it; the film currently sits at a 28 on Metacritic. Guardian critic Benjamin Lee awarded it one star and called it “an excruciating watch”. Dolan’s films had polarised receptions before, but this seemed one-sided in the worst way.
The film’s issues seem perhaps to lie in the troubled post-production. The film was supposed to premiere at the 2018 Cannes film festival as all Dolan’s previous films had, but he reportedly withdrew it because he was unhappy with the edit, premiering it a few months later at Toronto instead. The resulting film was clearly not as initially intended. Michael Gambon is credited as “narrator,” but the film has no narrator, with Gambon’s role restricted to a walk-on part in the third act. Chastain’s role had been cut entirely, with a suggested two hours of an original four hour run time excised. Some films have lost that kind of length before, but usually impressionistic pieces with large ensemble casts like Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, at the premiere of which Adrian Brody was apparently appalled to discover his starring role had been reduced to a cameo. This was a melodrama with an intricate double flashback structure and frame narrative. How could you lose half the total runtime and still make a coherent film?
Well, I suppose you don’t, although it must be said, that given that production history, it’s perhaps shockingly impressive that The Death & Life of John F. Donovan is as coherent as it is. There are noticeable ellipses in the narrative, most of which it successfully styles out as intentional ambiguity.
The film’s three narrative streams are as follows. Set in 2017, the film follows the interview, between a disinterested journalist (Thandie Newton) writing what she believes is a puff piece on a child actor’s new memoir that she didn’t bother to read, and the actor (Ben Schnetzer), who is immediately aware of his interlocutor’s antipathy. Both power through anyway and proceed to discuss the book, which is an epistolary memoir, anthologising the fan correspondence between the actor Rupert, and the titular TV star Donovan (Harington) ten years earlier, when Rupert was eleven.
These form the two other story threads. Following Rupert (Jacob Tremblay) at his new home in England, where he struggled to integrate at a new school in the face of both homophobic bullying and his distant mother (Natalie Portman). His one outlet was his favourite TV show and his secret pen pal relationship to its star. Meanwhile, we cut to John’s life at the centre of a glamorous social whirl, in which he was unable to publicly acknowledge his sexuality, living a lie to those around him including his mother (Susan Sarandon).
The film reuses many of the same stylistic mannerisms so successful in Dolan’s other works and it would be uncharitable to say they don’t work here. However, like many foreign language filmmaker’s English language debuts, and more significantly, ambitious follow-ups to more intimate and smaller-scaled dramas, it ends up rather a disconnected, floaty and meandering piece.
Dolan’s films often have an undisciplined artistic sensibility that allows them to follow whichever object glitters most in their vision, leading to films that flit from a cinema verité joie de vivre to bombastic melodrama from one scene to the next. Mommy is far and away the most effective blend of the two styles, with this on the more troubled end of the spectrum, often unsure of what sort of film it wants to be or what themes it wants to explore.
However, to say the film isn’t entirely successful is dismissive of its many strengths. There is some strong, perceptive and emotional writing along the way, including the absolutely fantastic line; “in the years when most boys became men, I became a celebrity”. Jacob Tremblay is as terrific as usual as young Rupert, Kit Harington’s performance here is honestly a career highlight. And both Natalie Portman and especially Susan Sarandon, who seems not to have put a foot wrong her whole career, give weight and pathos to their mother roles. Kathy Bates rounds out the cast as Donovan’s principled manager and nearly steals the film with a tough love monologue in the last third.
The weakest acting by far is from Newton and Schnetzer in the 2017 segments. Now, this part is all speculation, but I suspect these parts were reshot or at least didn’t come out as intended. Chastain’s role was described as ‘a journalist’, and Newton plays one here, Schnetzer’s part was indeed initially going to be played by Nicholas Hoult, and from the way it was written, it’s very similar to roles Dolan has played in his own works before. Again, totally speculative, but given how awkward these scenes come across, with clunky dialogue and wooden delivery, it wouldn’t surprise me if these scenes were shot under different circumstances and a different mindset to the rest of the film.
As usual, Dolan makes bold soundtrack choices, including some Adele for whom he shot her comeback music video for “Hello”. I’m pretty much convinced that you need a heart of stone not to be choked up by Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” under any circumstances, and the cover version employed here and its absurdly melodramatic usage is a triumphant moment of tear-jerking emotional bombast.
There may undoubtedly be elements here that fail to pull their weight, and I’d be lying if I said the narrative came together cohesively, but it’s carried ever onwards by the innate sincerity of its drama and sentiment. With so much going on I would typically have expected to begin tuning some of it out and get bored, but I never did. The film invested me and pulled me along with, if not into, it’s narrative, which had the yearning allure of a classic Max Ophuls melodrama. The reason the film intrigues so much though is more to do with the question of how it fits in as a case study on the way meaning is created through a story, and it’s here that we move into more spoiler-rich territory.
We never see John write a single one of these letters, and he never acknowledges writing them in his dialogue. Several times it’s suggested by other characters that Rupert may have made up the letters; no one believes him when he mentions them and he loses them when he tries to show them off. At one point they are stolen and we never see him get them back. So how did he turn them into a book a decade later? There’s one scene when his mother reads one of the letters, but it’s still conceivable that Rupert wrote it and mailed it to himself.
This would all make a lot of sense. The scenes we are seeing with Donovan may actually have happened to Rupert in the intervening years. We may be seeing only one person’s story this whole time. It’s certainly true that the two boys do no actual interacting the entire film, with each of their accounts being more about, yes, their relationships with their mothers, and with their own sexualities and identities, not with each other. The film’s final shot seems to embody a moment of beautiful realisation, as Newton’s interviewer Audrey seems to have an epiphany of some sort, and this revelation, the fact that Rupert wrote the letters himself, would fit that spot perfectly.
Yet the film never truly ratifies this interpretation. Donovan is both older and more famous than Rupert. He has a loving and supportive brother, while Rupert is an only child. So how can this be what the film means if it contradicts itself? Maybe the letters were rewritten from memory, or are some amalgamation of his own story and Donovan’s, the latter having been constructed from research? Maybe Donovan was supposed to have written them and Rupert managed to recover them, but both sets of footage were left on the cutting room floor? Would it change the film’s meaning either way? Perhaps, in its apparent failure, The Death & Life of John F. Donovan has succeeded in creating a truly ambiguous narrative where there are no right answers because none of them makes sense of everything the viewer has seen. That’s sort of how the film works. Scenes make sense; the whole doesn’t.
The Death & Life of John F. Donovan is a deeply strange and rather beautiful experience. There’s plenty for an uncharitable viewer to be frustrated by. I don’t blame critics for dismissing it and I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to make it their introduction to Dolan’s filmography: start with Mommy as I did and go forward from there. However, as a devotee of his style and his voice, there’s something genuinely enrapturing about this film’s very failure, and yes, it is a failure, however much I enjoy its constituent parts, they do not improve one another. Take any one of the film’s three plot strands out and stand it on its own and it would work, but put them together, and they buckle and distort each other in a way that could never have been deliberate, yet still creates something new and unique. Something that no one, not even Dolan, mad lad he is, would have dared try to create on purpose.