My cinematic introduction to writer/director Xavier Dolan was one I couldn’t have expected. I’d heard plenty about I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats and, after seeing Laurence Anyways, I regret not having seen either. I was floored by Dolan’s cinematic control; the power displayed in his musical choices, the imagery, his use of color, his instincts as to when to go experimental, when to dial it back, when to go handheld and more. With the confining walls of shooting in 1.33:1, Dolan delivers a film that on the surface is about a transsexual coming into his own in the mid-’90s and the obvious issues that arise, but deep down it’s about the difficulties with love we all experience.
The story centers on Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred Belair (Suzanne Clement). Laurence is an accomplished writer and teacher and Fred works in the film industry. They’ve been dating for a while, but their relationship is about to change once Laurence reveals he is a transsexual and will begin living his life as a woman — dressing as one, wearing makeup and taking hormones.
You can understand Fred’s shock at the news and the instant questioning as to what she’s going to do. Does this mean the relationship ends? If the relationship continues does it make her a lesbian? How will society perceive their relationship? What matters? What doesn’t?
We live in a society where appearance is everything and with the story set in the ’90s public acceptance was even less tolerant then than it is now. Public acceptance being one thing, the film doesn’t avoid topics such as work, parents, family, friends, etc. as they all come into play. In his mid-’30s and finally willing to come out of his shell, Laurence has asked the love of his life to join and support him and the story follows the results of the decisions made.
Laurence Anyways is an enigma. At 23-years-old, Dolan has achieved a level of cinema filmmakers three-times his age couldn’t dream of achieving. On top of writing and directing the film, Dolan also served as the film’s costume designer and editor, just as he did on Heartbeats, in which he also played one of the film’s three leads. Here he puts the acting shoes aside and hands things over to Poupaud and Clement who bring this film to life with such vigor, passion and intensity each scene seems to breathe off the screen.
Poupaud is great as Laurence, bringing to life all the complications, concerns and worries that could possible be involved with mustering the guts it takes to step into a classroom of teenagers for the first time dressed as a woman when all they’ve known him as is a man. On the flip side of that, just as much as he captures the scared side of Laurence, the confident and exuberant side is equally enticing, elevating the energy of the film that ebbs and flows with the characters’ shifts in emotion.
Even more impressive, as far as I was concerned, was Clement. So often in a film like this a writer will forget to tell the story of the people a decision like this affects beyond the person making the decision. In this case Fred is in the line of fire, taking plenty of weight on her shoulders as well, weight that is lifted in one brilliant coffee house scene about midway through that brings to light all the frustrations and worries she’s had to deal with since deciding to stand at Laurence’s side. There are several such game-changing scenes, but this one stands out above all the rest and Clement deserves every ounce of attention we can give her.
I reserve the majority of my praise, however, for Dolan whose script is just as impressive as his direction. Early on Laurence and Fred play a game, listing their interpretations of colors, but it doesn’t end there as it is then cleverly woven throughout the entire film. In this game, colors such as pink, blue, red and brown all say something about a person and after the rules have been established those colors bear stronger intent as the film plays out, be it a red filter or a pink brick. I also can’t help but mention Fred’s entrance to a formal ball that was so cinematically sumptuous you couldn’t have forced me to look away. This entire film is candy for the cinephile and Dolan had me eating out of his hands.
Beyond his visual panache and clear control of the medium, where Dolan also won me over was in what he decided to show and how he went about telling his story. So often serious dramas about subjects such as this, or love in general, feel it’s necessary to present it with a raw portrait of sexual escapades. Dolan makes no such effort. His attention is on story and character and while I won’t argue against anyone that believes the film is a shade too long (it could have probably lost 10 minutes or so), the attention to these characters as living, breathing people as opposed to pawns in a cinematic sexual game adds to its sense of reality.
As soon as I get the chance I will be watching Dolan’s previous two features, ashamed I haven’t yet seen them and looking forward to his next outing. If it’s anything like this one and if he continues to grow I won’t for a second doubt we’ll be referring to him as one of cinema’s masters 10-15 years down the line.