Title: Laurence Anyways
Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Magalie Lapine-Blondeau, David Savard
A snappy, expressive visual style and superlative lead performances power 23-year-old writer-director Xavier Dolan’s audacious, melodramatic French-Canadian import “Laurence Anyways,” about a man in a committed relationship who decides to undergo transgender reassignment. Executive produced by Gus Van Sant, the film unfolds on an expansive canvas (it’s over 160 minutes) that will immeasurably deepen its emotional richness for those with whom it most strongly resonates, but only to serve to highlight the problem of its obsessive self-regard for those who view it as blissed-out and gorgeously designed yet at its core indulgent arthouse wankery.
The title character of “Laurence Anyways” (Melvil Poupaud), a 35-year-old author, poet and teacher, has an intense, us-versus-the-world-type relationship with his fiancée Frédérique (Suzanne Clément, quite good), or Fred for short. But he has a secret, too: he’s always felt trapped and phony in his masculine form. He decides, then, to become a woman, and goes about breaking the news separately to Fred and his mom Julienne (Nathalie Baye). At first Fred’s instinct is to break things off with Laurence, but then she decides she loves him enough to stick it out, telling Laurence, “The moment I met you, I knew I was in for something extraordinary.” The film then charts their on-and-off relationship over the course of the ensuing, pop song-annotated decade, from the 1980s into the 1990s.
With its moments of intense subjectivity and music frequently at odds with the characteristically heavy and dour nature of its subject matter, flashes of “Laurence Anyways” evocatively capture the fitful and woozy feelings of both deep inner turmoil and contentment, which much surely encompass feelings of gender identity disorder as well. Counterbalanced by some touching, quiet ruminative moments, scenes like these feel different and special, and hint at a work that can more readily surmount its proudly worn precociousness.
But its interview framing device feels arbitrary, and weighs the movie down. Other bits, like Laurence’s knee-jerk instinct to initially fib to Fred about wearing women’s clothes after just coming clean about his disorder, come across as false. The broader problem, however, is that there’s not any editorial rigor applied to the underdeveloped plotting — which is bloated, no matter the years “Laurence Anyways” ticks off.
Wunderkind Dolan (“I Killed My Mother,” “Heartbeats”), who helped design many of the costumes for both Laurence and Fred, has a nice eye for florid composition, and indulges a few moments of cathartic outburst and break. But while Poupaud and Clément evince a great chemistry, sometimes the movie’s self-consciously intense, handheld camerawork skirts dangerously close to parody. Mostly, though, it just evidences a hoarder’s bond to moments of extravagantly photographed feeling — no matter that it’s often the same feelings being communicated, over and over.
NOTE: “Laurence Anyways” opens this week in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and Downtown Independent, in addition to engagements in other top 10 markets.
Written by: Brent Simon