Watching Xavier Dolan’s nearly three-hour long Laurence Anyways is like being enveloped in a grand 500-page novel written by a master in the making. There are frequent moments of genius where you are rendered blissfully immobile by the onscreen carryings-on; uncountable witticisms you wish you yourself had dashed off; unbridled passions that hit the heavens and then bounce back harrowingly; several paeans to those filmmakers who’ve inspired him (e.g. Ken Russell); and now and then a slight unwieldiness that’s easy to sidestep.
At 24, Montrealer Dolan, a former child actor, has now directed three acclaimed films with a fourth on the way (Tom a la ferme). His first, the deliciously comic yet lyrical I Killed My Mother (2009), dealt with a substantially high-strung gay teen’s love/hate relationship with his mom. Mostly hate. Heartbeats (2010) chronicled the friendship of a gay man and his best gal pal, and what results when they both fall in love with the same winsome gent, who appears to return both their affections...or not.
With Laurence Anyways, Dolan turns to the very topical issue of transsexualism. Taking place in the late 1980s and the pursuing decade, way before it was declared to not be a mental illness in England (2002) and France (2009), the film jumps back and forth in time, capturing the characters’, their families’, and the man-in-the street’s reactions "to men in female garb who have no fondness for their penises," a behavior then diagnosable as suffering from "gender identity disorder."
The heroes here are Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Frederique/Fred (Suzanne Clement), two lovers who meet on a film set of sorts. The two are rebels: she with her dyed-red hair, fashion inventiveness, and dislike for dark chocolate. He, with his contagious joie de vivre, is an award-winning writer employed as a literature instructor.
Laurence: "Proust describes too much. Three hundred pages to tell us that Turtur fucks Tatave is TOO much."
Brilliantly matched in humor and intelligence, plus co-conspirators in a mutiny against social norms, the two are also sexually compatible, and they do adore copulating as much as glorying in each other’s eccentricities.
Laurence: "There was a time in my life, I threw away all of my watches away. I didn't want to watch time go by, hour after hour."
But then on his birthday, Laurence confides he wants to be a woman. Fred angrily questions if Laurence is gay. Laurence bristles at the notion:
At first Fred is supportive, aiding Laurence with "her" makeup applications and even buying her lover "her" first wig. (We switch pronouns starting here.) But although Fred is in love with Laurence’s soul, will she be in love with Laurence’s body once it is transformed? And what about society at large? Will Laurence lose her job? Well, yes. Will she be beaten up? Another affirmative. And will she be considered a walking freak show? You’ve got it.
So like Romeo and Juliet, except they’re "sex-crossed lovers," the love of Fred and Laurence rises and sinks and rises again and...?
Laurence Anyways is a startlingly journey of brave self-acceptance that travels effortlessly from the naturalistic to the surreal and back once more. There are butterflies flying out of mouths, waterfalls in living rooms, and pastel garb raining out of the sky. Plus, amidst this superbly acted battle against the repressiveness of normalcy, for retro-ites, there are the tunes of Visage, Depeche Mode, Tchaikovsky, and Duran Duran. Inarguably, any aficionado of exceptional, pertinent cinema need look no further. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice,indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate,and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.