Focusing on 10 years in the life of a man who has decided to undergo a transformation into a woman, Xavier Dolan handles the drama of Laurence Anyways with a wry sense of balance that includes powerful performances, expertly paced scenes, spectacular set design and costumes and a brilliant command of cinematographic language. Though tackling an often misunderstood subculture in the varied array of the LGBT world (a man who wants to be a woman who still has an attraction to women) the film is simply a brilliantly sculpted piece of cinematic drama that should be seen by cinephiles in search of something that boldy explores and exploits the cinematic medium to its limits. But there’s a brilliant, compassionate story at the center of it, too.
At the film’s start, against nothing but company logos of production houses that made the film possible we can hear Laurence (Melvil Poupaud): “I’m looking for a person who understands my language and speaks it. A person who, without being a pariah, will question not only the rights and the value of the marginalized, but also those of the people who claim to be normal.” It’s a bold statement beyond sex and gender, and the film stays true to that, never over-sexualizing but focusing on acceptance of a person out to challenge what seems “normal” in a compulsive yet honest— if not passionate— manner.
As the intense drama between Laurence and his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) offers up one conundrum after another while offering insight into the troubles involved in Laurence’s desire to finally be true to who he believes he really is, Dolan provides a kaleidoscope of cinema that always feels fresh from scene to scene. He even throws in a few scenes of poetic fantasy sequences to express revelations that exist beyond the tangible world. For instance, to cap off one conversation between the couple, Laurence opens his mouth to only have a butterfly flutter out.
But that’s mere stunt work compared to the subtle craft that permeates the many scenes in the film. Laurence Anyways feels like an experience. Early on, in 1989, when Laurence is about to reveal his desire to change, he and Fred are making out inside a car as rain pounds on the windshield and Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes” blares from the radio. The scene is lensed with a fish eye, making the interior seem expansive. Fred, her brunette hair partly painted a brilliant red expounds on tapping into experiences via color. They exchange intense phrases of sex and trauma and their associative colors. In the distance a woman in a red raincoat walks by, blurred by the fierce raindrops. It’s a brilliant allusion to the personality Laurence and Fred are about to tangle with for the remainder of the film.
Many scenes in Laurence Anyways echo with layered meaning and drama. It’s in the small details as well as the grand. The film is full of surprises, from inventive camera angles to the a varied color palette. A later confrontation inside the car is punctuated by the wash cycle of the car wash the couple is sitting through. The details in the set design are worth noting for the glaring dichotomies, from floral print pillows coupled with zebra-print roll pillows to the conscious decision to show a metal rail on a red, wooden door frame. Some shots could be framed as art pieces, like the image of carefully torn pages of a letter scattered inside a toilet bowl, shot straight from above.
The film’s two-hour-and-40-minute runtime should not be considered a detriment. Dolan does so much with the many scenes that never feel overlong from a cinematic standpoint. The film never feels like it drags. Divided into several chapters, noting certain years, Dolan even varies fonts of the intertitles. The director also does not stick to one sort of cinematographic technique. Some scenes merit long, lingering distant shots, others handheld work. Laurence Anyways is all about change, after all.
Despite all the flash, it never overshadows the heartfelt performances of the actors who take on their damaged personas with amazing gusto. Fred’s outburst toward an older and over-inquisitive waitress during a Saturday Brunch with Laurence probably stands as the reason why the jury at Cannes took notice of her to give her the best actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category. The tension between her love of Laurence, her frustration with a situation in their relationship she had no choice in and an anger at a world filled with people who judge from a distance pours forth with a fervor that will break your heart.
Though the film feels personal and intimate, it never loses sight of the glam and glitter side of Laurence’s pull toward the feminine. There are scenes of such high-tilt glam, Ziggy Stardust would go home and cry. At the same time, the film never loses sight of the passionate connection between two souls who are drawn together no matter their situation. It’s similar to what Cloud Atlas said with its various characters drawn together over various centuries, but without the hokum. This feels real. There’s passion in this young director and he knows how to tap into a similar passion in his two leads to make for one of the more compelling dramas of 2013.
Lauerence Anyways is not rated, runs 168 min. and is in English and French with English subtitles. It plays in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. The film is presented in conjunction with Dolan’s 2009 debut feature, I Killed My Mother, marking that film’s US theatrical debut. FYI: Dolan won Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight with that film when he was 19 years old. If you are outside South Florida, Laurence Anyway’s national screening dates can be found here.
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)