Sundance 2023: “The Night Logan Woke Up” Is Xavier Dolan At His Best

This The Night Logan Woke Up review contains mild spoilers.

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The last time Xavier Dolan adapted a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, he made his best film. Combining his expressionistic talent with another queer artist’s structure and genre, Tom at the Farm was at once more focused and less prescriptive than Dolan’s other movies. With a central performance from the director himself and a thematic core of queer repression and family dysfunction, the work was undeniably his own — and yet it was something altogether new.

Tom at the Farm premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2013. It wasn’t released in the US for two more years — even as more bombastic Dolan works like Laurence Anyways and Mommy were widely beloved.

The Night Logan Woke Up, Dolan’s new Bouchard adaptation and first television project, is once again a thriller premiering at a major festival. And it is once again Dolan at his very best. With just the first two episodes being shown at Sundance, many questions remain. But my truest review — the reason I’m writing this article about an unfinished story — is I can’t wait two years to see the next three episodes. I need them now.

The first episode begins with a pride flag burning. A group of masked individuals have lit it on fire mere days after it was raised.

The year is 2019. The location is a small Quebec town. The opening moments go unexplained — maybe it’s part of the larger mystery, maybe it’s just a fitting introduction to a place with conservative politics and an aura of darkness underneath the service.

We then begin to meet our main characters: the Larouche family. There’s Madeleine (Anne Dorval), the matriarch on her deathbed and the catalyst for her children’s reunion, her oldest, Julien (Patrick Hivon), his wife, Chantal (Magalie Lépine Blondeau), the middle son, Denis (Éric Bruneau), the youngest son, Elliot (Dolan), and the prodigal daughter, Mimi (Julie LeBreton), who returns after two decades away.

Dolan reveals information about each of these characters slowly. Sure, we know Madeleine ran for mayor. We know Julien is a former baseball star who has decided to go back to school. We know Denis is divorced and doing his best to do right by all parts of his family. We know Elliot is just out of rehab. And we know Mimi is a thanatologist who was sent away as a teenager. But this is a family filled with secrets. Each of the siblings reverberate with unspoken trauma. And little is learned in these first two hours.

What we do learn is mostly gleaned in the show’s other timeline, back in October 1991, when Madeleine was running for mayor. There are hints at the catalyst of this family’s pain, but none an audience can feel certain to believe. Wisely this alternate timeline exists less to provide exposition than to deepen our central cast of characters, reveal more about this town, and, if anything, heighten the mystery.

I’ve been a fan of Xavier Dolan’s since he made his debut feature, I Killed My Mother, when he was only 19. I love the ambition in his work, the explosion of cinematic queerness in every frame. What some saw as immaturity, I saw as freedom — especially since I watched his first two films when I, myself, was a teenager. But it’s true that his missteps — in his work, on social media and online — feel almost inevitable coming from a white former child actor called a genius at too young an age.

I say all of this, because even as he hints at slowing down his directorial career, The Night Logan Woke Up feels like a thrilling next step for the filmmaker. So far it is at once his most ambitious work and his most restrained. The commercial and critical failure of his English language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan — an imperfect movie not quite deserving of the ire, in my opinion — seems to have reset and refocused him. Slowing down is not the same as giving up and if his movie a year schedule gives way to a project every three years, I welcome that change. Especially if it’s work as good as these first two episodes.

The shift has not led to work that’s more accessible or less creative — it just feels richer, more thoughtful. And I say this as someone who has loved most of what came before. He still has the slow motion montages. He still has the needle drops. He still has the melodrama. He still gives a great performance and gets great performances from his other actors. It all just feels more precise.

If you love his work, you’ll love this show. If you hate his work, this may just be the project to convince you otherwise.

Assuming, of course, it gets picked up by an American company and we actually get to see it.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. omg I am so excited for this!! Tom at the farm is also my favourite of his (okay, just after I killed my mother which is just…amazing), but I sense that it’s not a fan favourite, an outlier so to speak. I always wondered why that is and of course, it’s very different from the rest of his work but I think it’s brilliant. can’t wait for the series, I really hope we can see it soon.

  2. Dolan was such an important part of my messy queer twenties! I can’t wait to find a way to see his new work.
    Tom à la ferme used to be my favorite as well (the tango scene forever engraved in my mind) before Matthias et Maxime came out.

  3. I’m so happy to see his work featured in the English-language queer press! I love the melodrama of his work and his stylized visions of the 90s. Sometimes I wonder how much context is lost when his films are shown in English and outside Quebec, because the cultural references in his work, and the specific depiction of Francophone queerness, are such a huge part of the viewing pleasure for me. I’m glad to hear that queer Americans like his films anyway, and I’m really excited about the new series!

    • yes this is also something I wonder! I just love how he showcases subtleties and specificities of québecois culture, especially his class analysis tied to this, and his dialogues in québecois are just a joy to witness! a lot gets lost even for me, I imagine (I grew up in Germany, but my mom grew up in Québec so we always watch his films in French and I really can’t imagine them otherwise, because the French language is such an important part of the characterization of the characters).

  4. Dolan seems to lose his spark when he makes films with non-Quebecois actors. John F. Donovan was his worst, but Juste la fin du monde was also missing something. Anne Dorval is one of his best collaborators so this looks promising. During the press tour for Mommy she told off a pompous TV host in France for his homophobia and it was very endearing.

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