After directing his first film, I Killed My Mother, at the age of 19 and following it up with the pretty good Heartbeats, many people have been wondering what Xavier Dolan would come up with next. The answer is Laurence Anyways, about 10 years in the relationship between Fred (Suzanne Clement) and Laurence (Melvil Poupaud).
At the outset they are just a normal man and woman who love each other and suffer the usual ups and downs of relationships. However Laurence can’t hold something in any longer and after two years with Fred he tells her that he’s transsexual and wants to start living as a woman. Inevitably this causes problems, with Fred initially wondering whether she should just leave – especially as her sister seems to think is the only solution. However they stay together, but the transition proves tough on both of them, and not solely because of Laurence becoming a woman.
When Laurence Anyways sticks to the core relationship between Fred and Laurence, it’s very good. There are some fabulously intense, claustrophobic scenes where the two lovers thrash out their issues and vent their anger. However when it strays from this, things are far less interesting and with a running time of 168-minutes, it certainly gives itself time to stray.
Dolan is still only 23 and while his first two films had a youthful, hipster vibe which helped you forget their pretensions, here he seems to be attempting to step out as an auteur. The results are mixed, as while his style and visual panache pays dividends in the core scenes, he has too much of a tendency to almost stop the movie every so often and scream ‘look, this is art’, which throws you out of the story. Surreal moments of symbolism can work in a movie, but here they’re too much and too obvious – a butterfly coming out of somebody’s mouth, a wave of water crashing over a women when she experience unexpected intense emotion. It smacks the audience over the heads with the meaning and artiness. Even the decision to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio (the same shape as old style TVs) smacks of needless artifice and occasionally results in ugly framing.
The overall result feels a little like a student art film where the filmmaker is superb at the technical aspects and drawing performances from the actors, but can’t help but show off in ways that probably seem like moments of genius in his head, but don’t really work within the movie. It doesn’t help that Dolan did pretty much everything – directed, wrote the script, edited – as it would seem there was no one there to say ‘no’. There’s a superb two hour movie struggling to get out of Laurence Anyways, surrounded by unnecessary scenes and moments of infuriating, pointless pretension.
Even so, Dolan is undoubtedly talented (even if he’s perhaps not disciplined enough yet), so that while flabby, Laurence Anyways is never bad, and his talent with the core story pulls you through what could easily have seemed like a very long chore. Although his script occasionally slips in lines of obvious metaphor and affected burbling, most of the time it’s pretty good, dealing well with character and the issues the script throws up. The film knows that there are plenty of issues surrounding one person in a relationship changing genders, but is smart enough to realise that it’s still two people and their lives wouldn’t solely revolve around one of them being transsexual.
Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement give superb performances, so you really do want to know what will happen to their characters. The film does an excellent job of keeping their relationship on a knife-edge, where you’re never sure whether they should stay together, and not because of the changes Laurence experiences. It’s about their hearts and who they are as people, as well as the pressures the world around them puts on them.
If it could have stuck to that and cut out some of its slightly jagged, pretentious rambling, this could have been really great. As it is, it’s a great example of what William Faulkner meant when he said ‘Kill your darlings’ – cutting out those things artists find it hard to give up because they think they’re cool or good in isolation, but which don’t actually help the story and often actively hold it up. Laurence Anyways might just about survive Dolan’s excesses, but it’s a shame nobody could have convinced him to produce a tighter edit, as he could have ended up with something truly special.
Overall Verdict: As a story of a relationship between two people dealing with the realisation that one of them is Transsexual, Laurence Anyways is good. However the core is surrounded by rather pretentious flab that dulls the impact it could have had.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac