Third in the Xavier Dolan series of reviews is Laurence Anyways. This is one of the few films that I’ve reviewed here on this blog that I felt absolutely obligated to watch twice before putting pen to paper, and probably an even rarer example of me changing my mind radically on a second viewing.
I think part of this change is that Laurence Anyways doesn’t make sense on the first viewing. It’s engaging and very beautifully shot but the earliest scenes make very little sense when you don’t know the end. For example, early in the film Laurence finds himself teaching a class on Celine and asking whether artistic talent can overtake the marginalised reputation of the person writing. It’s an interesting question, but not one whose significance is clear when you don’t know that Laurence himself is, as we later discover, a trans woman, and thus a member of these marginalised groups. The only clue the first time viewer has had is the opening shots, which while they clearly show shocked reactions to a woman walking, give no clue as to the fact that this woman is in fact the man that the film cuts to ten years earlier. It feels like Dolan almost wanted to use the backwards film structure of Betrayal and 5×2 but shied away at the last minute. After all, the film does end with the central couple’s first meeting. It could have just as easily started with their parting.
This couple is the heart of the film. Dolan avoids making Laurence’s transition into the main story; it’s not what’s really happening. While, of course, the ten-year span tracks the transition implicitly it’s only because the relationship at the core of the film spans those same ten years. The two lead performances allow this film to thrive, both are sensitive and deep portrayals that take into account the changes that time brings. In places their dynamic becomes very hard to watch since they remain through the whole film two people who love each other but simply cannot be together. Yes, they were crazily in love and a happy couple but they were more crazy than anything else at that time. Both of them fail to communicate what they’re going through, keeping secrets for years or having it all come out in a screaming match.
Suzanne Clément heartbreakingly portrays her character’s struggle, Fredérique never truly accepts Laurence as a woman, still being in love with Laurence the man. She loses it seeing him dressed in womens’ clothes and hearing people refer to him as her girlfriend. At their first breakup even Laurence understands this, and comes in mens’ clothes, planting the seeds of hope that keep the pair of them circling round each other for the years to come. Fredérique lives in the illusion that Laurence’s transition was what kept them apart. In fact it was her caring for him and loving him enough to be on his side during the transition that kept the sinking ship together.
Melvil Poupaud’s portrayal of Laurence is more subtle still. Laurence is not a cliché of a transgender woman. He’s not a flamboyant drag queen about it and even refuses to wear wigs, preferring his awkwardly male hair until he can grow it down. He is contrasted to a group of drag queens and old dames whose expression is all about performance and self-marginalisation while Laurence yearns for a quiet acceptance of his self. Poupaud does a good job of never quite making Laurence seem fully female until the very end, the last moments when Fredérique finally accepts that she’s in love with a man that doesn’t exist anymore, even if this woman bares his face and name. Until that time Laurence lives in the denial that he can get her back despite being a woman, and she fools herself that it’s just dress-up. At this point in the film Xavier Dolan throws clothes from the sky in a music video style interlude – one of many – just to really land the point. It’s stylish, but the film would have been fine without it.
Unfortunately, despite the very interesting story and character relationships, even including the other women in Laurence’s life, his mother, Fredérique’s sister, there is just simply too much of this film. Structurally it doesn’t hold together. Quite apart from the parts that don’t have meaning until you watch it a second time, at which point they do slot beautifully into place, there are sections that just don’t need to be there. The rose club Laurence finds himself with are interesting for a while and create an interesting comparison but they don’t move anything forwards, they’re just dead time. In other places it seems as if Dolan falls back on his editing skills and ability to create effortlessly stylish cult-classic scenes to fill in for a structural default, like the ball that Fredérique finds herself at and the aforementioned falling clothes.
The film is nearly three hours long, and feels it, probably less and less on each subsequent viewing but that’s still a problem. There are parts that could have been cut out, which would probably make more sense of the whole if you didn’t have so much time to forget all of the million scenes that have gone on to try and sort out which ones were relevant or not. We’ve seen what Xavier Dolan can do in 100 minutes in Les amours imaginaires and J’ai tué ma mere. Why did he suddenly need the extra 70?
- Entertainment: 3/5
- Artistic: 4/5
- Intellectual: 3/5