Quebec filmmaker Xavier Dolan's "The Death and Life of John F. Donovan" has had a complicated death and life of its own.
Expectations were high for Dolan's English-language debut film, and his first featuring major Hollywood stars. It was shot in Montreal in 2016, and was initially slated to come out in fall 2017, but the release was pushed back for further editing.
This February, Dolan announced he was taking the unusual step of cutting Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain out of the movie because the initial film was over four hours long. It was then accepted by the Cannes Film Festival this past spring, but was pulled out at the last minute, at Dolan's request.
On Monday night, "John F. Donovan" finally premiered at TIFF. The film stars Kit Harington of "Game of Thrones" fame as a TV actor who develops a pen pal friendship with a young fan, played by Jacob Tremblay. Susan Sarandon plays Harington's mother, and Natalie Portman plays Tremblay's mother. The cast also includes Kathy Bates, Thandie Newton of "Westworld," Canadian actors Sarah Gadon and Emily Hampshire, and — appropriately enough for a movie about the distortions of fame — Paris Hilton's fiancé, Chris Zylka.
Dolan opened the premiere by reading a letter he wrote to Leonardo DiCaprio just before his ninth birthday. "I wish that I could play in one of your movies one day," he wrote in his only occasionally broken English. "I sincerely hope that you will answer my letter by sending me one of your picture(s)."
So, did Dolan's English-language film meet the high expectations? It's hard to tell. "In classic Dolan fashion, it's a film that will divide critics and audiences alike," wrote the Montreal Gazette. The Guardian hated it, calling the movie "a dubious mess" and remarked that by the end, "it starts to feel like Dolan is parodying a Dolan movie." Now Magazine called it "mediocre at best." The Hollywood Reporter was slightly less harsh, praising its "tastefully middlebrow aesthetic" and "sumptuous" cinematography but also calling it "half-baked" and "cumbersome." And Screen Daily mostly liked it, remarking that "'John F. Donovan' may revisit a lot of familiar territory for Dolan but on this form it is good to welcome him home."
But many of Dolan's fans, on the other hand, appreciate his trademark aesthetic flair and pop culture fascination, and called the film moving and effective. Social media was full of praise for the film, which received a standing ovation.
Xavier Dolan brings his usual flare to THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN as a portrait of fame, sexuality, and identity. He creates near-perfect cohesion between the different narratives. The final sequence is everything #TIFF18— Warren Kang (@warjkang) September 11, 2018
Xavier Dolan's The Death and Life of John F. Donovan is a masterclass in filmmaking & storytelling. This is a hopeful, heartbreaking film abt the gay experience, mother son relationships, our most intimate childhood dreams: critics & popular audiences will love it. #TIFF18— Beatrice V @TIFF18 (@beansproutbea) September 11, 2018
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F DONOVAN is why movies are made. Pure emotion. Searing, incisive and full. A masterpiece, in short. #TIFF18— Alex Naser-Hall (@anaserhall) September 11, 2018
The Death & Life of John F. Donovan - Xavier Dolan digs real deep to deliver a very personal and incredibly satisfying homage to actors in a story about authenticity and self-love in one of the most exceptional features of his career. Nearly perfect from start to finish. #TIFF18— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) September 11, 2018
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan: I mean, it's definitely Dolan start-to-finish. Filled with melodrama, pop music, families yelling in close up, rich cinematography, etc. His voice/style is still very much there in English. I kinda dig it. #TIFF18— Matt Rorabeck @ #TIFF18 (@mattrorabeck) September 11, 2018
Regardless of the mixed reaction, Dolan, Harington, et al seemed to be enjoying themselves at the movie's premiere party in Toronto, hosted by Grey Goose vodka and Soho House. (It must have been past Jacob Tremblay's bedtime, because he was nowhere to be seen.) Fans loved the movie, and reviews can be read in the morning, after all.
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