Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy decides he wants to be a girl, and girl struggles with whether or not she can still love boy-turned-girl. This seems like such an obviously compelling storytelling scenario, a queer twist on an otherwise conventional love story, which makes it striking that a film like Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways hasn’t already been made before (at least, not to my knowledge).
Montreal, 1989. Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale) is a novelist and literature teacher well into a passionate years-long relationship with Fred Belair (Suzanne Clément), an AD in the Quebec film industry. The couple plans a vacation, Laurence prepares his first novel, but something is amiss; something is tearing Laurence apart. While in the middle of a drug-addled, fiery exchange in a car wash, Laurence breaks down and reveals to Fred that he was never meant to be a man, that he despises the body he was given and longs to realize his true self as a woman.
Thus begins a harrowing, beautiful, tragic, eventful decade in which the couple begins a cycle of coming together and falling apart when met with the fluidity of identity and the role that gender takes in forming human relationships. Laurence Anyways is a truly stunning achievement, a symphony of sound and image, an epic account of a dynamic and complicated relationship, and one of the most powerful and affecting love stories I’ve seen on film in quite some time.
After some serious apprehension, Fred decides to embrace Laurence’s change, to support her along the way, and to maintain the relationship. She buys Laurence a wig as a show of support (which Laurence only wears when Fred is around), and encourages Laurence as she enters school after the holiday break on for her first day dressed as a woman. This sequence is a particularly effective entryway into the psyche of somebody undergoing a dramatic change of gender identity. It’s one (tough) thing for Laurence to undergo this shift with Fred, the couple’s friends, and Laurence’s parents as witnesses, but it’s another thing entirely for Laurence to make a public entrance, to come out as a woman in front of students and colleagues. We’re invited to share in Laurence’s fear and sense of foreboding, as well as his relief and pride.
Laurence Anyways opens with faces slowly turning toward the camera in curiosity, confusion, and perhaps even fear and hatred. This is a convention used throughout the film, and a rather obvious, yet vital, one. Laurence makes a shift from being a straight white male (a rather invisible subject position in North America if there ever were one) to self-identifying as a woman, but remaining in a liminal space of identification that prevents people from categorizing her in gender-normative terms. One of the most remarkable things about the film is the way it allows the audience to experience this shift in subject position – from being a “normal” member of society to becoming marked, a shift that turns Laurence into someone who exhaustively has to negotiate, justify, and explain her identity to a culture that doesn’t make room for in-betweeness.
Fred’s love for Laurence and her progressive sensibilities are no match for the ways in which the couple’s romantic and sexual dynamics change. Fred grows exhausted of explaining Laurence’s presence in public, and at the same time longs for a sexual relationship with a cisgendered male. I won’t catalog Laurence and Fred’s ups and downs here – they are many in this nearly three-hour film – but suffice it to say their relationship is a roller coaster of issues, spite, and incredible passion over the course of a decade. Poupaud and Clement have remarkable chemistry, and the film gives a palpable (if occasionally somewhat forced) sense that we are witnessing a window of an enduring, complex set of profoundly intimate interactions between the central couple.
Dolan’s visual style has matured greatly over the three feature films already under his belt. Using the Academy ratio, Dolan exhibits an expert instinct for style, tone, and composition. The many intersecting visual dynamics of the film – from title cards to period-appropriate attire to simple framing and decisive camerawork – make for a unique, individuated, and stunning visual signature for its young, burgeoning auteur. But the source soundtrack really sells the film. Dolan (and whoever worked with him in the film’s music supervision department) utilize period-appropriate pop music from Depeche Mode and Kim Carnes to classical composition from Beethoven and Satie to anachronistic selections from Fever Ray and Moderat. Laurence Anyways is unashamedly pop, aesthetically appealing, and decidedly hip, even as a movie about an emotionally wrenching relationship. Some moments, like Fred’s Kubrick-meets-Liquid Sky, Visage-scored coming out as single, might come off as stylistically indulgent for some, but I came away totally sold by the film’s style, excesses, and ambitions.
But certain questions are conspicuously unaddressed in this film concerned with fluid gender identity in relationships. Fred (and sometimes Laurence) spends a great deal of time exhaustively spelling out the terms of transphobia to other characters (and, inferentially, perhaps the audience itself) in a way that almost verges on Paul Haggis territory, but Laurence Anyways itself seems reluctant to deal with several of its own issues head-on. I’m curious, for instance, why sex between these characters as Laurence experienced continued transitions was never shown. Despite the queer subject matter, what we’re left with is a rather conventional – even normative – love story, especially as indicated by the film’s ending. There are other things that the film could have been, but I still love Laurence Anyways.
The Upside: The best movie I’ve seen so far this year; a visually stunning, emotionally enveloping achievement that tells a love story as we’ve never quite seen it before; killer soundtrack.
The Downside: Some of the themes are repeatedly telegraphed or transformed into exposition; by the end, the film is far more conventional than its initial promise seemed.
On the Side: Dolan is only 24 years old, and is already at work on his fourth feature film.
Laurence Anyways opens today in limited release. You can keep track of the cities it’s playing in here.