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Trans in the Mainstream: Xavier Dolan's 'Laurence Anyways'

By Dominic Clarke | /Bent July 26, 2014 at 11:40AM

The third installation of this series looks at the highs and lows of Dolan's film in terms of trans representation
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"Laurence Anyways" comes down somewhere between "Transamerica" and "Dallas Buyers Club" in terms of representation of trans characters. Xavier Dolan is a young gay male who, at 25, has an output as astounding as his artistic vision. The G and T in the alphabet soup of the LGBTQ community continue to make uneasy bedfellows for some. Overall the film is wonderful but even queer filmmakers don’t always get the trans experience right. 

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film

At nearly three hours long, this film spans roughly ten years of the main characters lives. There are a couple of brave and interesting things about the story Dolan chooses to tell in this film but I question his casting choice to tell the story. Dolan is gay and while the general public tends to lump the trans community in with the gay community it is an uneasy fit for both groups. So while it makes sense that perhaps a queer person would have more of a sense of this story, we can’t give Dolan a pass considering what he gets wrong.  First, let’s start with some of the more positive aspects.  

First, even by placing the film in the 1980s when trans issues and transitioning was much less common and there wasn’t nearly as much of a community as there is now, the fact that Dolan chooses to tell the story of someone older (which makes sense given that the film takes place during a time when the majority of people transitioning were in their 20s and older) and that of their trajectory from coming out through transitioning is wonderful. Perhaps the fact that it wasn’t as common and the community didn’t exist led Dolan to focus in on the two main characters rather than the transition aspect of the story. In "Transamerica" Bree was already through the tougher parts of her journey and she had seemingly done all of it alone and on her own. With the character of Laurence, we see someone choosing to come out to their girlfriend on their 30th birthday. The actual start of a transition tends to be when you verbalize your identity to somebody else for the first time and this is rarely something we see in film. While transition itself does not make someone transgender, it is valuable to see them hand in hand in a film.

Second, by placing Laurence in a stable relationship we get to see the effect his coming out has on his girlfriend and their relationship. Partners who are blindsided by the news of a previously unknown trans identity react in many different ways. Some are supportive and remain coupled, some are supportive but are not able to remain together, and some are completely unsupportive and that can take on many degrees of expression, from break-ups to court cases when there are assets and/or children involved. Laurence’s partner, Fred (Frédérique), reacts with shock and an initial lack of understanding only to come back and be with her through her transition. The relationship goes through many ups and downs over the span of the film and ultimately they don’t end up together. It feels very authentic and true to human nature.

Stephen Dalton, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, focuses in on the usual topic for cisgender people when it comes to transgender people – genitals. He writes, “While the script initially seems intent on exploring the emotional and social costs of transsexuality, it remains oddly vague about Laurence’s surgical transformation and subsequent sex life. Instead, Dolan digresses into a more familiar story about two volatile people who can never quite live either together or apart.” However, it’s precisely the fact that it’s a humanizing story about two people in a universal sort of relationship struggle that makes it so notable, compelling, and good. It’s extremely frustrating for those in the trans community to have their identities reduced to genitalia but it happens very often in films and film reviews. Many trans people cannot afford gender confirming surgeries. Genitalia does not equal gender just as what surgeries a person may or may not have had also does not equal their gender. To miss the point that the story of Laurence Anyways is about the two lead characters is to miss the point of the movie.

Kevin Jagernauth, writing for Indiewire, thankfully grasps the film and writes,

 

"And while the story is centered around transsexuality, it's Dolan's remarkably astute and observational eye on how a relationship between two people can evolve, deteriorate, rebuild and implode over time, that makes "Laurence Anyways" relatable and universal. While Fred generously makes herself available to Laurence after his life-changing decision, she hardly knows what's in store. How could she? And while Laurence knows what gender he wants to be, he's yet to discover the person he will become as a result. These are two people, whose love for each other is undeniable, thrust into a situation that will irrevocably change them both. And with these adjustments will come situations they couldn't have prepared for, drama they could not have expected and a ten-year journey that tests their understanding of themselves and each other. And you gotta hand it to Dolan, he throws everything he can at the movie to transmit those feelings, and while not all of it works, when it does it's a deeply felt and honest accomplishment."  

However, as impressive as the plot is, it is important to draw attention to the fact that there really is no proof of any sort of medical transition taking place with the character of Laurence. She starts wearing women’s clothing and make-up and a wig but just looks like a man in bad drag. There’s no attempt at feminine vocalization or no mention of hormones, no electrolysis, no physical proof of hormone therapy (such as small breasts that come from estrogen), nothing really that makes me believe that this character is seriously choosing to transition. I think that if Dolan were making a statement about the gender binary (or someone choosing to be genderqueer), he would have needed to address that. However, in the film we are told over and over that Laurence is a woman. I would have liked more visual proof of that. If you’re making a film about trans people and choose to cast cis male actors to play trans women or to play males who are transitioning to female, you need to cast the role more carefully if you want it to be believable. Putting a dress on a man makes him a crossdresser, which is why cis men playing trans women doesn’t really work. I think that if you choose to not cast a trans woman that you would be better off casting a cis woman (as we saw in "Transamerica") and using hair and make-up to convey masculinity rather than having a not at all believable cis man in the role.

READ MORE: Trans In The Mainstream: 5 Takes On The Representation of Trans Men and Women In Film