Film Review: Laurence Anyways

Tender depiction of two lovers, one of them transgendered, propels Xavier Dolan’s sublime (and lengthy) drama.

The outburst Frédérique Bellair delivers against a waitress’ casually ignorant and insidious demeanor towards her transgender friend/lover Laurence in front of a multitude of judgmental onlookers marks the acme of Xavier Dolan’s stupendous third feature, Laurence Anyways—a film that favors celebrating its characters rather than creating mushy, preachy pathos through their perceived status as “social misfits.” In fact, this scene perhaps constitutes the film’s one overt, outspoken act of rebellion: Through its nearly three-hour running time, it manifests its point via an “as it should be” attitude (as shrewdly conveyed by the title), already believing its characters—whose distinguished style choices and confident steps are like a rally of their own—are nothing but equals to everyone else around them. Thus, the French-Canadian wonder-kid Xavier Dolan’s refreshing and extraordinary achievement here is fiercely telling a grand tale with the most universal of themes (love), and carefully exempting it from victimization while not avoiding the social issues that surround it.

I remember Dolan’s eloquence and intellect (oh, and his artistically sculpted hair) leaving the audiences swooning when his 2009 Cannes splash I Killed My Mother—a semi-autobiographical, waggishly titled and delicately humorous film about a gay teenager’s love/hate relationship with his mother—closed the 39th edition of the New Directors/New Films series in New York in 2010. A trenchant, sincere portrait of a refreshingly unique yet oddly familiar round of parent/child tit-for-tats (which also exists in Laurence Anyways), Dolan’s playful debut (that he wrote, directed, starred in, produced, edited and did the costumes for) left me wondering whether his follow-up works would display the kind of substance that would signal him as an Orson Welles of his own accord. After all, he was only 20 when he directed his debut, and only 16 when he wrote it. After Heartbeats, his slightly tenuous second feature (which I found to be a step down in earnestness yet a dial-up in his display of confidence), it is wonderful news that Dolan hits a home run and shines his brightest with Laurence Anyways, proving the smarts of his one-of-a-kind debut were no fluke. As he once again reaches down to hidden depths of a seemingly impossible relationship, exploring the basis of its enduring stamina, he delivers something fascinating: aspiring in a visual scope which artfully brings vivid images of the ’80s and ’90s to life, and effervescent in its love for characters who cut through a sexually transitional era.

The sharply observed Laurence Anyways exists in the familiar Dolan universe: punctuated by an innocent hint of self-indulgence that somehow doesn’t plunge into a display of debauchery. Indeed, Dolan’s portrayal of Laurence (a subtly effective Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (a sensational Suzanne Clément) is earnest, warm and hopelessly romantic despite the ambitious canvas they reside on. As the duo sail through the ’80s and ’90s—starting off as lovers, abiding as friends (once Laurence reveals his lifelong desire to live as a woman on his 35th birthday) and maturing as each other’s true soul-mates—Dolan’s frequent visual embellishments—from statement-making wardrobe and hairstyle choices to majestically art-directed interiors—beautify the backdrop of their universe without becoming items of distraction. As Laurence and Fred’s self-defined love travels between tameness and chaos, Dolan’s collaboration with cinematographer Yves Bélanger yields tightly calculated compositions, which activate the audience on a parallel emotional path, with roles ranging from an outside observer (via shots set through doorways and hallways) to a directly confronting participant (through straight-on angled close-ups).

Despite being titled Laurence Anyways, I found the most fascinating creature of this film to be Fred, as a freewheeling agent of revolt and an audacious enabler of her counterpart Laurence. Dolan gives Clément, who is volatile with her performance (and her distinguished looks), a goldmine of layers to work with equal to Poupaud’s. And that complexity indeed justifies the film’s longwinded running time (criticized by some during its festival runs), which allows its characters to firmly settle on their grounds before they flourish. Plus, suggesting a trimmed version of this film, which I suspect Fred and Laurence would consider as something that “diminishes their pleasure,” would mean a lessened opportunity to fall in love with the duo and indulge in the exquisite period soundtrack (featuring the likes of The Cure, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran) that accompanies them. Luckily, Dolan seems to agree.