Ordinarily, a week that includes new releases from directors Xavier Dolan and Richard Linklater would count as a major one in most cinephiles books. Two film-makers – one a prodigious enfant terrible who made seven films before turning 30, one a long-established godfather of American indie cinema – with little in common otherwise, they can both boast a prolific output, a distinctive stylistic signature, and a devoted club of admirers that all but deserted them on the two new films in question.
For the coronavirus shutdown isnt the reason youre not seeing Dolans The Death and Life of John F Donovan or Linklaters Whered You Go, Bernadetteon the big screen in the UK. After underwhelming in festivals and/or cinemas abroad, they were already slated to shuffle with little fanfare on to the usual VOD platforms this spring – a pretty sorry outcome for films that boast not only major auteurs, but glitzy all-star casts and, in the case of Linklaters film, a bestselling source novel. In this market, name power only goes so far.
Id love to tell you that these films deserved better; sadly, neither can be called underrated. Of the two, The Death and Life of John F Donovan is at least the more fascinating folly. The first English-language film by the distinctively Quebecois Dolan, it falls right into the tin-eared trap that has snared many a gifted world-cinema luminary switching to English, but you cant say it does so without ambition and bravado. Thrashing about in various narrative directions across multiple timelines, it vaguely follows the open-hearted correspondence between a lonely child actor (Jacob Tremblay) and his idol, a tortured, closeted movie star (Kit Harington). Said to have run four hours in its initial cut, it bears all the scars of a troubled edit: a subplot starring Jessica Chastain was excised in its entirety. What has survived, despite Dolans typically lush craftsmanship, is antic and scarcely coherent.
Trim and digestible by comparison, Whered You Go, Bernadette isnt an unpleasant watch. Its just disappointingly beige given the seemingly winning combination of Linklater, star Cate Blanchett and Maria Semples sly, nimble comic novel. Tracing the mystery of a well-heeled but agoraphobic Seattle housewife who disappears on the eve of a family trip, it follows the thrust of the novel but never quite nails its tone: the jangly satirical elements clash with the more mournful character study at its heart, leaving much of the film in a bland limbo. Blanchetts amusingly mannered turn is the tangiest thing here, though its hard to defend the surprise Golden Globe nomination she won for this.
The good news is that both directors better days are easily available via streaming. My own favourite Dolan film, the anxiously atmospheric, Highsmith-infused queer thriller Tom at the Farm, can be found on iTunes, as can is his still-electrifying 2009 debut I Killed My Mother, a troubled mother-son battlefield made when he was just 19, and bristling with raw, ragged adolescent energy. I prefer it to Mommy, a more ornately styled development of similar themes, though its perhaps his most celebrated film; iTunes, again, has it for a mere 99p.
Linklaters filmography, meanwhile, gives you a surfeit of choice, whether you prefer the woozy, seductive chatter of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy (all available on Amazon), or the spiky, frayed Gen X energy of his breakthrough film, Slacker (Amazon again). The confident, unforced effervescence of more commercial efforts like School of Rock (free to stream on Prime or Now TV) is what his latest lacks. Meanwhile, were probably enough years away from the overworked critical discourse around Boyhood (on Netflix) to reappreciate his 12-year coming-of-age portrait for the beguiling experiment it was.
Linklater is reattempting that trick next, embarking on a two-decade schedule to film Sondheims Merrily We Roll Along. Dolan has since emerged from the wreckage of John F Donovan to make the far leaner, better Matthias & Maxime, which will be in cinemas later this year. Few will remember these straight-to-VOD blips, but for curious completists theyre quietly there.