Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Xavier Dolan is a genius. At 22, he had already made his third feature film, Laurence Anyways, a sprawling, gender-bending epic on par with some of film’s most visually accomplished works; comparisons to Wong Kar-wai and Kubrick have been made. The film won awards worldwide, including in Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival.
His first two films, I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, established and entrenched him on the international scene, mostly on the festival circuit, as an auteur on the rise. This year he premiered yet another acclaimed film, Tom at the Farm, his fourth in five years. This pace is not only rare but tends to indicate a level of artistic confidence and showmanship; Fassbinder’s 40+ films in just over a decade established that seemingly insurmountable template.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Laurence Anyways is a work at once staggering in its ingenuity and steeped in cinematic influence. Dolan’s films are of the few that clearly address the spectrum of human sexuality and desire, linking him to the earlier work of the young Pedro Almodovar, another provocateur who broke boundaries with his frank and fearless portrayals of gay life.
We meet the title character, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a transgender woman then living as a male, in 1989 while she is in a happy relationship with Fred (Suzanne Clément),her androgynously nicknamed girlfriend. Laurence is a writer who pays the bills as a high school teacher, while Fred’s punk aesthetic finds a happy home as some sort of personal assistant on television/film sets. In an early scene, Laurence stands atop Fred on their bed dumping clothes from a linen basket, and the two joyously laugh and play like children. This sartorial symbolism is gloriously echoed in a later scene.
Fred and Laurence are artists living in Montreal during a time of excess: Dolan’s period detail, from the synth laden art scene, expressionistically framed compositions, and awesomely ‘80s/’90s outfitting, creates an environment befitting change, both ideological and physical.
Right away their chemistry reads more as friends than lovers, even though the affection between them, sexual and otherwise, is clear. During a surprise trip to New York City, Laurence admits, somewhat inexplicably, that she identifies as a female and that her past as a male felt like a lie. Though surprised, Fred supports Laurence and encourages her to embody her truest self, a gradual transition which starts with makeup and a wardrobe change and eventuates to living as a woman. It’s a testament to their love that this seismic shift in interpersonal dynamic doesn’t bring about the end of their romantic relationship.
Dolan frames Laurence’s metamorphosis with a keen eye for composition and beauty. Each shot builds upon the one before to create a somewhat hypnotic effect, even when the drama taking place within is destabilizing.
Understandably, and predictably, Fred’s relationship with Laurence becomes strained, somewhat due to public scrutiny, but mostly as a result of feeling stifled by the burden of being a constant support structure, Laurence’s only one. Upheaval becomes one of the only consistencies in Laurence’s life: letters from angry parents force the regretful school board to fire her; Fred’s absence makes going through the transition alone an even more painful process; a strained relationship with her parents leaves Laurence confused and disappointed. Still, the situation’s occasional grimness is never manifested in the way Dolan chooses to frame it, a choice which reveals his outlook on life: to thy own self be true.
Though each shot is memorable, the film begins to drag around the half way mark. The 160 minute runtime portends something epic and grand, and Dolan’s filmmaking objectives and aesthetics mostly keep Laurence Anyways bristling. But at the end of the day the story is an intimate one, and the narrative asides Dolan chooses to interject throughout tend to detract from the story’s import rather than bolster it.
There are exceptions: After a violent run in at a bar, Laurence’s prospects become brighter after a stranger comes to the rescue and takes her to a safe haven where two fabulous sisters house queer runaways. This respite is opportune, signaling not only that all is not lost but that there are others out there like her. It does get better.
Laurence and Fred’s on-again/off-again relationship serves as a parallel narrative to Laurence’s graduation to self acceptance and happiness, and their bond remains unscathed even as it becomes clear that their relationship hasn’t. Poupaud and Clément have great chemistry together, and her performance, particularly, is one of the year’s best. Dolan smartly makes the film as much about their relationship as Laurence’s transition, focusing a good amount of time on Fred’s emotional journey. Laurence Anyway is indomitably rapturous, a film of epic proportions and probably the best and grandest depiction of a transgender relationship every made.
A whole disk is required for the special features, even though there’s only two of them. The first is the better of the two, and an invaluable insight into Dolan’s creative process. “About a million” scenes were shot but not included in the film, and Dolan explains his editing choices with care, noting how some scenes were mediocre, others slowed the film’s pace, etc. He has a lot to say, and for film as grand and seminal as Laurence Anyways, it’s welcome information to have. The second feature is a conversation between Dolan, queer critic Peter Knegt, and a programmer at MoMA following a theatrical run of Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother, earlier this spring.