By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 18, 2012 at 5:22PM
"The sky's the limit," Fred (Suzanne Clement) says when she's asked about what people will say when her boyfriend Laurence (Melvin Poupad) decides to become a woman. It's 1989 and she believes that her generation is ready to handle transsexuality -- and perhaps they are -- but as both Fred and Laurence soon find out, their intellectual capacity to deal with the transition may not survive the rigors of the heart. The young director Xavier Dolan has proven he's anything if not divisive, and his latest, "Laurence Anyways," will do nothing to change that. But as messy as it is, as much as the film overreaches and overplays its hand, "Laurence Anyways" is also exciting for the very ambition and narrative daring that it contains.
For Laurence, becoming a woman is a matter of survival. He compares his life to holding his breath underwater for over 30 years, with the decision to finally transition allowing him to finally surface for air, and become the person he always felt he was inside. And while those around him are surprised, a funny thing happens...he receives almost unanimous support. After some understandably long thinking, Fred agrees to stay by his side while Laurence's mother Julienne (Nathalie Baye) refuses to be surprised, and supports him as best she can despite their fractured relationship. Even at the school where he teaches, his supervisor Michel (Yves Jacques), the staff, and even the student body, doesn't bat an eye. Nevertheless, the uncertainty of where their relationship will go is ultimately the undoing of Laurence and Fred...but hardly the end of their story.
Spanning a decade and told in flashback, Dolan's nearly three hour film can easily be described as epic. 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.
But for those familiar with Dolan's previous efforts, they know he swings wide and hard, but doesn't always connect. Dolan's aesthetic, generally speaking, is "more is more," though that sometimes works against his best efforts. "Laurence Anyways" features an extensive, eclectic soundtrack, mixing classical pieces, '90s hits and Quebecois pop, and you feel its presence. Particularly early on in the film, the music also serves as too heavy an emotional hammer for scenes that are already strong on their own. Visually, Dolan intriguingly opts for an Academy ratio this time out, but falls in love with wallpaper, fabric patterns, color motifs and numerous slo-mo montages to the point of distraction. It's clear he's a devotee of Pedro Almodovar, but has not yet mastered that fimmaker's ability for balance and restraint, with his stylistic choices at times overwhelming the emotional and dramatic content.
But with that said, Dolan is the kind of filmmaker we'd rather see put all of himself out there than try and self-edit in order to make something more conventional. At 23 years old, we'd expect nothing less of a director than to try everything they've got in the arsenal no matter how pretentious or misguided it gets. Filmmakers twice Dolan's age could use some of his energy and inspiration, and even if some of these choices fail, Dolan succeeds more often than not, and when his vision and execution line up, it's breathtaking to experience. But he also doesn't do it alone, and he gets two strong performances out of Poupad and Clement, who carry this unconventional film with arresting conviction and fearlessness.
Yes, at two hours and forty minutes, "Laurence Anyways" is way too long (there is definitely one subset of characters that could be excised/reduced and the film would be better for it) and the filmmaking is very self-aware. However, Dolan has said recently that he was disappointed this third film at Cannes -- his second in the festival proper -- was still relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar. And we can understand why. "Laurence Anyways" contains a voice so pronounced, and so specific, that Dolan is going to be one to watch for years to come. And frankly, this film is more adventurous on numerous levels than some of the competition fare we've seen so far. But no matter. "Laurence Anyways" doesn't require the validation. Unwieldy and unkempt but both moving and dizzying to experience, "Laurence Anyways" is Dolan's grandest statement yet. [B]