While Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan can’t seem to restrain himself from inserting what appear to be heavily stylized Dolce and Gabbana ads into his films to pad out an (on the surface) unconscionably long running time of 161 minutes, Laurence Anyways (which won the award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week and has already made waves in Quebec) marks the most assured effort from the young filmmaker; a multilayered story about love and the search for identity where even his sometimes egregious stylistic touches seem to have deeper meanings about the nature of conformity and the death of individuality.
Chronicling the life of Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud), a 35 year old poet and university professor, who one day in 1989 tells his wife Fred (Suzanne Clement) that he would rather live life as a woman, we follow along as the couple falls in and out of love over the course of a decade. She thinks she can support him and act more progressively than those around her, but her love might not withstand the stress brought on by someone who simply doesn’t know what they want out of life. Despite their pseudo-bohemian appearance and vaguely leftist doctrine of beliefs, Fred can never fully grasp what Laurence goes through and the true dramatic thrust of the film comes from watching her break down as her own sense of progressiveness comes into question.
Aside from assuredly controlled direction, Dolan shines more brightly as a masterful storyteller. The film – when it isn’t bogged down by lengthy sequences of people looking impeccably dressed in 80s fashions – doesn’t feel like it’s as long as it is. It’s made known very early on that the viewer is in for a lengthy trip through the memories of the film’s main character, and while he’s never the most sympathetic character on the planet, Dolan strikes just the right balance that makes it easy for viewers to want this couple to succeed and find happiness (or at the very least, closure).
Despite his flourishes of flash, Dolan definitely knows how to compose a shot and fill the frame with stunning visuals. Shooting in the now little used 1:33 academy ratio, it feels like Dolan might have imposed the smaller screen technique for fear of going mad trying to work on a bigger palate. He’s a heck of a stylist and wit working with little need for visual subtlety or restraint.
He also draws immense performances from his two leads, and the chemistry between Poupaud and Clement is undeniable. As Laurence, Poupaud runs through an appropriately confusing and confounding gamut of emotions and outbursts, but Clement steals the show as his counterpart. Fred actively works herself into a depression brought on by a secret she keeps from Laurence so she doesn’t upset their already fragile dynamic. It leads to bursts of anger and resentment that Laurence doesn’t have the capacity to understand, and Clement offers more sympathy for her character over time than Poupaud. Even without the notion of changing identities, they could very well stand in for any couple facing hurt feelings and secrets. Their problems are universal and Dolan makes theirs one of the more believable doomed romances in years.
It’s all dramatically weighty stuff told by someone with a thorough vision of what they think the material needs to be, even if it does get a bit ungainly at times. Sometimes the people don’t speak like 80s intellectuals, but more like modern post-irony disaffecteds. Dolan sometimes can’t help taking ten minute to describe what can easily be summed up in two, and this tendency leads to far more monologues as the film goes on, showing a love for his own language rather than the story which lurches towards being somewhat too convenient as it plays out. Despite all that, Laurence Anyways continues Dolan’s ascent to becoming one of Canada’s leading filmmakers and one of the local industry’s biggest players on a global stage. It’s easily his best work to date.