Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan returns to the fold with Laurence Anyways, a weighty and sprawling three-hour opus that picked up the Queer Palm award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Illustrating a marked improvement in substance over the writer-director’s previous efforts, Laurence Anyways takes its viewers on an intense emotional voyage as Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a teacher, makes the tough decision to – in the narrow-minded 90‘s – follow his heart and reveal himself as transgender.
His revelation – one that has brewing for many years, coming to a head in a fiery outburst of emotion set within the claustrophobic space of a car wash – comes as a shock to those around him, not least his long-term partner Fred (Suzanne Clément) and steely mother (Nathalie Baye). It’s perhaps the relationship between Laurence and Fred that’s the most striking here. Initially, and after a period of doubt and self-blame, Fred tries to be supportive towards Laurence, but as his transition takes its toll, Fred detaches herself.
Over the ten year period that unravels through Dolan’s expansive narrative (the run time clocks in at a hefty, yet involving 161 minutes), Laurence and Fred drift in and out of one another’s lives and encounter many issues, from prejudice (a scene in which Fred stands up to a nosey waitress in a small-town café is among the film’s best) to new relationships and sorrowful isolation. It’s a time period that allows for such cumbrous issues to be probed in thorough fashion, as Laurence’s mindset contradicts with those on the outside.
Dolan deals with the narrative beats with remarkable competence and sincerity, sticking with these characters through thick and thin, together and apart. That said, there’s no doubt that it’s sometimes a struggle to wade through the unrelenting force in which Dolan hurtles ideas – unedited – right, left and centre. It’s an exhausting affair at best, and Dolan could do worse than find an editor he trusts in to condense and better rationalise his meandering and often overwhelming instincts.
Notwithstanding, Dolan’s direction prevails as he uses colourful, expressionistic compositions, penetrating camera angles and a piercing electronic soundtrack (a punchy remix of Headman’s “Moisture” immediately springs to mind) to accentuate the various characters’ emotions, temperaments and behaviours. What remains the beating heart of Laurence Anyways from start to finish, however, are the intense, commanding performances delivered with outstanding virtuosity and raw, fiery emotion by Poupaud and Clément. Baye, too, is memorable in her role as Laurence’s stubborn mother.
Dolan isn’t likely to win any new admirers with his hefty tracking of a love affair and for those adverse to a bloated run-time it’s best to steer clear. But for those willing to tackle the onslaught of ideas thrown at the screen and discover the effusive, prudent and purposeful heart at its core, Laurence Anyways is a rewarding piece of cinema busting with ideas, realism and two of the years most committed performances. Dolan – only 23 years young – is fast cementing himself as a writer-director willing to take risks. It might well result in a film that boasts many imperfections, but it’s commendable nevertheless.