Ambitious, Anyways

Laurence Anyways
(Canada/France, 168 min.)
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri
Laurence Anyways is a film with an identity crisis. This third feature by Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan is, in short, a 168-minute sex change movie. Gender identity disorder, however, is not the predominant predicament on display in the film. The outstanding visual flair and almost literary depth of the film make Laurence Anyways seem like the work of a seasoned European auteur. However, the film has such manic joie de vivre in visual flair that it almost seems like a confused party struggling to play a role to which it was not comfortably assigned. Instead of being a thought-provoking piece of cinema, then, Laurence Anyways plays like a three-hour fashion commercial from the Nineties.

The two models strutting the runway of Dolan’s film are Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and his girlfriend, Frédéric (Suzanne Clément). Laurence and Fred share a happy life: they’ve been together for a few years and they’re committed enough to one another that they share an apartment. It’s 1989 when Dolan first shows them as a couple, and it seems like marriage could be in the works by 1990. Things change, however, when Fred makes plans for Laurence’s birthday and he tells her en route to the restaurant that he’d like to change his order from a hotdog to a taco.
Fred is understandably confused and upset, but she’s willing to stand by her man as Laurence prepares to make the transformation. She’ll take Laurence anyway he comes: man or woman, it’s still the same person she loves. Fred doesn’t fancy herself a lesbian, nor does Laurence share an interest in girls, yet Fred is so in love with Laurence that she is sure that they will stay together through Laurence’s metamorphosis. Such a radical change in their relationship was never on the menu for Fred, so the most fascinating element of Laurence Anyways is that in which she tries to take this unconventional situation and try to build some semblance of an ordinary life.

Laurence, on the other hand, feels liberated at finally confronting the sense that has always been tugging at his heart. In a burst of confidence—aided greatly by Fred—Laurence struts her new look through the hallways of the school where she works as a professor of literature. Likewise, Laurence (who keeps her birth name throughout the film) uses the change to reconnect with her distant and rather cold mother, played by a superb Nathalie Baye (Catch Me If You Can). By seeing how two woman adjust to Laurence’s proud identity—one for the better and one for the worse—the film greatly succeeds in challenging how easily people accept society’s view of a plain, cosy lifestyle.
Laurence Anyways stumbles, however, in that it seems to be conflicted with whether to identify with Laurence or the women in her life. Laurence’s story is, admittedly, an interesting one. Story of transgendered persons rarely come to the screen and her arc provides a worthy partner to films like, say, 2005’s Transamerica, which saw Felicity Huffman take a similar journey via a parent-child road trip. Laurence Anyways takes a surprising turn around its midpoint, though, and it sees Laurence and Fred take different routes. At this point in the film, Laurence’s story becomes more like a vehicle to state bluntly the themes and ideas of the film, while Fred’s story plays out the essence of the film more artfully and substantially. Laurence’s narrative almost becomes an afterthought at this point, while Fred’s bizarre escape into a happy life in the suburbs develops a more stimulating challenge to which lifestyle is more abnormal.

Fred’s story gains more power, too, because she is the character with whom viewers are more likely to identify and to connect with emotionally during the first act of the film. Aided greatly by an outstanding performance by Suzanne Clément, Fred’s emotional volatility (and vulnerability) engulfs the film in raw emotion. Clément makes Fred a vibrant presence, thirsty for the life that is draining away following Laurence's transition. She speaks straight to the heart of anyone who ever felt themselves drown in suburbia. Poupaud as fine as Laurence, but the actor receives a much more subdued role than Clément does, so Frédéric’s story inevitably overwhelms the film. Clément deserves a standing ovation, but Laurence Anyways inadvertently marginalizes the very character that it seeks to champion.

It’s extremely frustrating and unsatisfying to give Laurence Anyways such a mixed review because the film is both Dolan’s most accomplished film to date and his most self-indulgent misfire. Laurence marks a return to the territory of artful, character driven drama with which Dolan made his debut in 2009’s I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère). Once again probing the emotional fissures that arise when revelations of sexuality challenge one’s perception of the status quo, Laurence Anyways marks a more ambitious tale than Mother, for it almost feels like a revised draft of Dolan’s debut film.

It seems as if Dolan has finally found something else to say beyond the narcissistic whining of his first two films. (His sophomore film was Les amours imaginaires.) Dolan is ready to take on society’s view of normalcy, and he isn’t afraid to deliver his views in a provocative essay; however, Laurence Anyways still succumbs to the same unevenness of its predecessors. In addition to the Laurence/Frédérique imbalance, Laurence Anyways features the same overblown visuals that that subsume the rest of the film. The flair especially dilutes the power of Laurence Anyways since the film clocks in at an extreme length, and one can’t help but begin to note the scenes that could easily have been trimmed in order to deliver a much tighter and impactful film. The scene in which it rains scarves seems especially snip-worthy. When Laurence and Frédéric take an extended vacation around the 130-minute mark, there is simply no reason for a flurry of silk neck-things to drop from the sky in an extended montage. Unlike the downpour of frogs in Magnolia, this precipitation is art for art’s sake.
Much else in the film’s stylistic flair seems wholly gratuitous. Laurence Anyways features endless scenes of striking visuals that feature beautiful people posing haughtily in fabulous outfits, accentuated by flamboyant light patterns, bold music, and sensuous slow-motion. Almost as eye-catching as Clément’s performance are Fred’s fantastic hairstyles and dresses. Dolan might be the first director to make a period film out of the 1990s, but a character’s hairdo should hardly be the first note listed in the ‘pro’ column.

Laurence Anyways nevertheless shows how impressively Dolan can arrange the film. Each shot of the film looks beautiful and his knack for composition is even more noteworthy since he takes the bland aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and manages to offer something visually arresting. If only the elegance of the film moved beyond singular images. Rather than double as a magazine, the stylishness of Laurence Anyways could have easily complemented the narrative. Dolan deserves due recognition regardless: as a film whose writer/director is only 23 years old, Laurence Anyways is far more striking and ambitious than most later works by veteran talents. Orson Welles didn’t make Citizen Kane until he was 26, so one can only anticipate what Dolan’s next few features might bring. 

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)  

Laurence Anyways is currently playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne.