Written by Xavier Dolan
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Canada / France, 2012
No one will dispute Xavier Dolan’s ambition. The now 23-year-old filmmaker already has three features under his belt, each more audacious than the last. Laurence Anyways, his follow-up to the warmly received Les Amours Imaginaires, seems on its face to represent Dolan’s vault into greater things: a gender-breaking anti-romance spanning a decade, boasting a daunting 161-minute runtime and an unusual aspect ratio (1.33:1), and shot in both France and Québec, Laurence promises either greatness or utter folly. The truth, as usual, rests somewhere in the middle: Dolan’s film contains revelatory performances, moments of startling beauty, and his most strikingly empathetic material, but his excesses nearly discard the goodwill built up over the film’s first 100 or so minutes.
Ostensibly, the film revolves around Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a high-school teacher who harbors and then acts on a hidden desire to live as a woman, but the bulk of the film’s screentime and attention actually goes to Fred (Suzanne Clément), Laurence’s girlfriend. When the film opens in 1989, they’re attached at the hip, enjoying a freewheeling-but-measured existence balancing day jobs and pot-addled social outings, having developed the sort of private shared language that is the province of the mutually co-dependent. After Laurence announces his decision, Fred is initially troubled, but then doubles down on her commitment level, pledging to support Laurence throughout his transition and launch headlong into a shared future. Before very long, however, external factors and internal pressures create fissions in the relationship until their dissolution seems only natural.
While Poupaud is credible as Laurence, the film belongs to Clément, much as J’ai Tué Ma Mère was marked by a great turn from Anne Dorval (more directly echoed here by the film’s other great performative asset, French screen veteran Nathalie Baye as Laurence’s mother). As Fred moves from unadulterated love and acceptance to frustration and self–doubt, Clément is note-perfect throughout, nailing a character whose emotional range is as vast as the film’s temporal scope.
It’s a shame, then, that Dolan didn’t think it necessary to hire an editor, instead opting to handle those duties himself. Laurence contains the materials for a truly great and distinctive work, but the film’s considerable charms are almost completely lost amidst a pointless framing device (in which Laurence explains his journey to a journalist) and almost the entirety of the film’s 1995-and-onward content, which lingers far too long on characters about whom the film has nothing new to impart. It feels like a tacked-on fourth act that could easily have been cut down to a brief epilogue or, preferably, been excised entirely.
Laurence shares with Les Amours Imaginaires a fascination with pop music (Depeche Mode, the Cure, and, of course, Fever Ray are all present and accounted for) as well as slightly abstruse framing decisions (shot-countershot patterns in which Fred and Laurence’s faces obscure each other in a none-too-subtle visual nod to their increasing emotional separation) and elemental exploitation (one of the few striking moments in the film’s back third features a windstorm of leaves engulfing Fred in a moment of emotional overwhelm), but it’s Dolan’s empathetic, egalitarian treatment of Laurence and Fred that truly elevates the film’s best material, and suggests that with a modicum of humility and perhaps the tempering influence of a strong editor, he’s capable of making truly great movies. After all, director/editor pairings are a hallmark of great directorial ouevres: Woody Allen and Susan Morse, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, David Cronenberg and Ronald Sanders, to name a few. Collaboration need not be capitulation. Should Dolan ever recognize that, he may well live up to his own considerable estimation.