Whatever happened to brevity? Xavier Dolan‘s latest project – the transgender-infused romantic melodrama Laurence Anyways that was chosen as part of this year’s secondary Un Certain Regard competition in Cannes – weighs in at a comfort-busting two hours and thirty nine minutes. That, in any context, is too long.
But, perhaps the plot might offer redemption, and make for an engrossing enough experience to make time less of an issue? It all appeared very promising – a decade spent in the company of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), who makes the bold and brave decision to change his sex, and his girlfriend Frederique (Suzanne Clement) who must come to terms with exactly what that decision must mean. Over the ten years the pair refind each other as Laurence advances on his personal journey of discovery, making this sort of like When Harry Became Sally, if you’re looking for a provocative, self-indulgent pop reference.
And it is no accident that I include those words, because Dolan’s follow-up to the bright promise of Heartbeats is a provocative, self-indulgent mess, littered with 1980s pop references (even, curiously when the narrative advances well into the middle of the ’90s) and showing open disdain for both character performances and storyline thanks to the director’s inability to control his wayward artistic impulses.
Time after time, we are invited to gawp in awe as Dolan shoots something upside down in the reflection on kettle, or something similar, or as he drops dream sequences into scenes that over-express their message and blow away any semblance of intellectual audience engagement. And while Dolan does manage some bold, statement shots, there are too many slips to forgive, and too little balance to his addiction to creating textural comments.
We can admire Dolan’s intentions, and indeed his commitment to making such bold statements, but as long as they continue to show such little restraint, and so criminally undervalue the key elements of his films, his chance to have them enjoyed will diminish with each effort. It was by no accident that Laurence Anyways ended up in Un Certain Regard, and not In Competition, to Dolan’s dismay, because his work is still infantile in its execution, despite the grandeur of some of its creator’s ideas.
The film is not a complete write-off however: as expected the scenes that dealt most explicitly and most rawly with the central relationship, and the profoundly affecting splinters created by Laurence’s transformation are the most successful by some distance.
When they aren’t overly concerned with being achingly cool for appearances (despite being alone together), or spouting the kind of pseudo-intellectual bullshit that should be left in the smokey dorm-rooms of undergraduate philosophy students, both Clement and Poupaud are excellent. They quickly establish passionate chemistry, which turns to angry fire as quickly as it does arousal and affection, and had Dolan managed a more refined take on their story – in the manner of Blue Valentine perhaps – the film would have been a far more rewarding and engaging experience.
Unfortunately Dolan’s artistic posturing and odd decisions actually pull the audience away from the engrossing dynamic between Laurence and Fred, and indeed out of the film completely. The snapshot statement scenes he shoe-horns in are little more than self-indulgent and wholly superfluous flourishes and they serve no purpose in the story. Instead of making decisions solely for the benefit of his story – which he should have in a film that so obviously aspires to melodrama – Dolan is too easily distracted by establishing an artistic mystique of his own.
The result is an infuriating mix of shattered expectations and self-important artistic masturbation, with the successful elements cruelly washed away in a torrent of messy, ill-conceived artifice. Yes there is accomplishment in the film-making, and Dolan clearly has a strict dedication to his own aesthetic and compositional choices, but there is too little restraint or intellect in most of the film.
Perhaps that accounts for the over-bloated running time.
The Upside: The basic premise is great, as is the central pair’s chemistry, and the soundtrack is exceptional.
The Downside: It’s high art for high art’s sake, to the detriment of the story. And 2 hours and 39 minutes is too long for any film.