Xavier Dolan’s TIFF-winning sex change saga and decade-spanning love story Laurence Anyways was released in the UK (though barely) this weekend. It’s hardly showing anywhere, alas, but it’s well worth seeking out. Here’s what I wrote about it at this year’s LFF.
Overlong and occasionally overblown, Xavier Dolan's emotional epic Laurence Anyways – the Canadian director's third feature following I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats – nonetheless proves consistently exciting and often affecting as it charts ten fraught years in the lives of a Montreal couple, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément). Opening in 1989, with the couple in the giddy throes of a volatile romance, the movie follows the bohemian pair – he's a writer and academic, she's involved in film production – through the challenges that come with Laurence's announcement that he was born into the wrong body and wants a sex change. Fred's response, after initial shock, is one of attempted acceptance. "Our generation can take this," she asserts. "We're ready for it." But this tolerant stance proves easier to maintain in theory than in practice, as Fred finds herself increasingly tested by Laurence's claiming of his – her – new identity.
The premise of Dolan's film is not unlike that of Jane Anderson's play Looking For Normal. Laurence Anyways offers the viewer a wilder, funkier ride, however. Where Normal unfolded in rural Illinois, Dolan's movie takes place in hip Montreal, a city whose vibrancy informed the film's stylistic approach. The 23-year-old Dolan – who not only wrote and directed the movie but also edited and designed the costumes – is a formidably precocious talent, and throughout Laurence Anyways one feels his sheer glee and delight in exploring, and stretching, the medium's potential. The film has a restless, trying-it-on energy that's occasionally a little wearying. but that suits its subject well. Dolan employs a highly self-conscious, apparently scattershot technique, incorporating slo-mo, surreal interludes and a range of marvellously diverse music selections (everything from Fever Ray to Prokoviev, The Cure to Celine Dion) to give the film its distinctive, dreamy texture.
Scrupulously avoiding conventional revelation scenes – not once do we get to hear Laurence announce "I'm a transsexual" – and there's only the briefest mention of surgical procedures (in relation to another character). Dolan prefers to place the emphasis elsewhere, namely on the emotional experience of his central couple. Hedonists who keep an inventory of things that "minimize their pleasure" (things to be avoided, in other words), Laurence and Fred are an idiosyncratic pair even prior to Laurence's revelation, and Dolan throws the viewer right into their relationship without giving us much chance to get our bearings. Cuts between time periods are often abrupt (watch out for a dazzling party scene set to Visage's We Fade To Grey that catapults Fred – almost literally – into the arms of a new partner) but Dolan manages to keep the arc of the narrative in focus, even as he throws out curve balls (the film is structured as Laurence's reminiscences to a journalist).
He's helped in no small degree by the committed performances of his actors. Poupaud has seldom been warmer or more emotionally accessible on screen. A variously insecure and defiant presence, he keeps us with Laurence every step of the way, and his slow, gradual transitioning into a female identity feels natural over the film's generous, near-three hour, running time. The petite Clément – who suggests a fiercer Holly Hunter of sorts – matches him with a taut, fresh and spontaneous performance. She's especially extraordinary in an astonishing scene in which Fred lashes out ferociously at a waitress who expresses curiosity about Laurence's appearance. It says something about Dolan's confidence that he's able to transition from this visceral encounter into a hilarious high-camp interlude in which Laurence is inducted into a transsexual sisterhood with a singing troupe called The Roses.
The supporting roles are also vividly filled, with especially fine work from Nathalie Baye as Laurence's mother, and from Monia Chokri who's hilariously mordant as Fred's sister. Throughout Dolan's dialogue takes you by surprise as much as his imagery does. "I need his forearms," whines Fred during a period of separation from Laurence. "Everybody has forearms!" her bourgeois mother retorts. And while avoiding soapbox-ish polemics, Dolan succeeds in making his social points, exploring the toll that Laurence's transformation takes on his work as well as his personal life, as the film builds to its climax on the cusp of the new millennium.
It's fair to say that Laurence Anyways won't be to all tastes. The movie's style-blitz and tonal shifts are a challenge and occasionally Dolan's appetite for excess gets the better of him. The flashback ending is also a shade or two too cute. But this talented young director has fashioned a bold and beautiful movie here, one that works hard –occasionally a bit too hard – to maximise the viewer's pleasure throughout.