Posted by Ian Mantgani on 16th October, 2012
Laurence Anyways is sad, funny, sexy, epic, infinitely stylish and brilliant. It engorges the senses and emotions for 165 minutes. Xavier Dolan is famous for being a 23-year-old French-Canadian child-actor-turned-wunderkind-director, but this film is not just the work of a smart young man, it’s the graduation of a major motion picture artist.
The quick way of describing the story is that it’s about a guy who becomes a transsexual. You’ll hear a lot about that in the press. It makes for a neat logline. The reality is that it is about love: the illogical pull of it, the hard work, and, when you’re lucky, the foolish ecstasy of it. We go back to 1989, where Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) is a Montreal academic dating a woman named Fred (Suzanne Clément.) Soon after Laurence’s 35th birthday, he does indeed decide that he wants to become a woman. Cutting between the year 1999, when Laurence is being interviewed about his new identity and autobiography, and the years following his original decision, Laurence Anyways follows the fallout on Laurence’s and Fred’s relationship.
I can’t emphasise enough that Laurence Anyways is about the relationship, and not transvestism or transsexualism. The 1999 scenes are oblique: We never really learn whether Laurence’s eventual transition to womanhood was a satisfying one for him/her, or indeed whether he went all the way into getting a sex change or just kept with the clothes and the hormones. The picture follows the years of 1989 to 1996, and then… the gap is a mystery. There are certain obligatory moments you’d expect in a film about a man changing his sex, and Laurence Anyways wants you to know that it’s sidestepping them: Yes, Laurence ends up getting his face beaten in, but it’s Laurence himself who starts the fight when he can’t take innocent questions. Yes, he finds a surrogate family in a theatrical troupe full of other queens, but there’s no clichéd enlightenment; he has, as Dr. Bryant noted about Rita in Educating Rita, not found a better song, just a different song – one that’s not that different after all, and the framing of the shots of Laurence and his cross-dressing troupe at a birthday party look just like the ones at the start of the movie with his pals from academia.
As a movie about a relationship, what a passionate, full-bore drama it is. Fred doesn’t understand Laurence’s decision. She is not happy about it. But she loves him, and sticks with him as best she can. Even when they do become separated for a time in the years-spanning tale, they find themselves drawn back together. This is portrayed in compositions of exquisite detail, with a saturated palette that emphasises the primaries, pinks, greens, whites and greys all at once. Dolan and cinematographer Yves Bélanger have shot in the almost-square 1.33:1 Academy ratio (in order to trap their characters, they say) and created images of bewildering amounts of elements. Laurence Anyways has shots in which characters are in the furthest horizon, straight-on shots where patterned wallpaper bleeds into costumes and isolates faces, strobey dance sequences (a Dolan trademark), slow-motion fantasy moments where clothes fall from the sky. There are kinky, cheeky little thematic shots, too, like a sugar-shaker placed in front of a photo of the Isle of Black, which looks like a stand-off between a cock and a bush. All this creates a dreamlike sense of pure emotion, sweeping us through its poignant, mad saga like the instinctive connection of good music.
What actual music there is, too: From Duran Duran’s darkest experimental piece, ‘The Chauffeur,’ to Fever Ray, to Visage, through Beethoven and Brahms and across to Celine fucking Dion, the soundscape creates operatic insistence out of classical and pop. And there are the stunning costumes, which nail the period of the 80s becoming the 90s without going for caricature. (If the movie has an aesthetic flaw, it’s that the costumes don’t develop: it still looks like the players are dressing for 1991 even when it’s 1996.)
“What have I done to deserve this?” asks a character at one point. It could be a nod to the title of the movie by Almodóvar, who, like Dolan, has no qualms about going for melodrama and likes to throw strong colours at the screen. But with Almodóvar I often get the sense that he’s satirising his characters, and portraying women as loveable but histrionic soap opera figures. Dolan’s bisexual gaze shows all the people in Laurence Anyways as living, breathing and sexy. Poupaud is obtuse but dashing; he’s a charismatic mystery. Clément, gorgeous in a Barbara Hershey kind of way, oozes with faithfulness and passion for her lover, longing for the situation to make sense, suppressed frustration at her needs not being met. Her character won’t be a victim, but the shots feel for her. There are hints in Dolan’s visual obsessions that his default position is the hipster delusion that cultural, gorgeous folks are the glorious insiders, and ugly, conventional people are the ignorant suburban enemy – but if so, he’s aware of that, and uses his considerably empathetic writing to bely it. Laurence’s mother, and peripheral characters like the teachers who can’t stop him being fired or the civilians who chime in with queries, aren’t part of the tortured bohemian inner circle of the film, but they get their moments to be realised as intelligent human beings with beating hearts and working consciences.
I loved this film beyond all reason, which is exactly the headspace it’s about. I ate up every painterly frame of it. I can’t wait to get it on DVD and study its moments in detail. Some people think it’s too stylised, which reminds me of a famous e.e. cummings quote: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” Some people think it’s too long, which reminds me of the scene in Amadeus where Emperor Joseph tells Mozart, “There are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it’ll be perfect.” At which point Mozart deadpans, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”