Without an official American release, it’s a shock that I can say this, but I have seen The Death And Life of John F. Donovan. After no distribution companies picked it up for an American release, after TIFF 2018, most people forgot about it. But not me. Even after the discouraging critical reception, I was still all in on seeing Xavier Dolan’s next film. And having seen it, it was well worth the wait. Upon a rewatch for this, I can safely say it’s earned a spot in my favorite films of all time. I am honestly impressed that it was able to do that so quickly. But why is there such a strong divide between the critical reception and the wider audience reception? Why are these two groups of people having such varied reactions to this film?
To investigate, I turned to the most reliable source to find movie reviews on the internet, Rotten Tomatoes. The snippets that RT has chosen to display from critics include description calling it a “TIFF 2018’s hottest mess” (Pat Mullen, POV Magazine) or “half-baked” (Stephen Dalton, THR). Generally, there were few reviews that genuinely praised the film. Even some of the “fresh” reviews weren’t completely on board with it, one saying that “the finished film is a mess,” (Karen Gordon, Original Cin) and as of this article being written, the film sits at a “Rotten” 19% on the TomatoMeter. However, when it comes to the audience score, it boasts a 70%, well above what the critics thought of it.
So I wanted to see the other side of it. As someone who was encouraged by Twitter to watch this film, I asked my Twitter followers about it. I simply asked, “if you watched and liked John F Donovan, please reply why you liked it.” and I waited. Slowly but surely the responses came in. And it was fascinating to hear why so many people liked this film. The responses ranged from how it was a “personal, well meaning film that just kinda misses the execution” (@fkawigs on Twitter) to simply “Masterpiece.” (@dselwyns on Twitter) These responses were of course amazing, but it didn’t quite compare to some of the other responses I received. One, that was much more in depth called it a “flawed masterpiece” going on to talk about its structural problems, but how it’s a very “genuine and heartbreaking study on fame.” (@intothegenverse on Twitter) Some others called it a very personal film, @filmlesbian on Twitter calling it an “intimate portrait of sincerity and truth.”
Funny, enough, I would have to agree with all of these statements. Obviously no film is perfect, and I do believe that a four hour cut could have either made this film soar to new heights or crash even more than many believe it did, but the two hour theatrical cut feels like it’s missing something. It feels like it has been cut down to half its size. And despite this, it still feels like something so personal. Between the struggles that John faces in his sexuality to Rupert’s feeling of being lost in a place he doesn’t know, while still keeping his passion for acting alive. To myself, it feels like a film that is so specific to a filmmaker, while simultaneously being almost universal in its messages. I don’t ever intend on bashing critics, they simply have a different taste, but it’s a shame that they don’t see the beauty in this film that so many other people do.