Laurence Anyways (2012)
Dir. Xavier Dolan
Originally written for Paste Magazine
During a lecture, Laurence, the titular character of Xavier Dolan's film, asks his high school students, "Can one's writing be great enough to exempt one from the rejection and ostracism that affects people who are different?" It sounds like a challenge Dolan makes to himself, to see how well he can make his film and how deeply he can write his characters; and his characters are certainly "people who are different." Laurence, born a man, was a biological mistake. He knows in his heart he should have been a woman. After a two-year relationship with his girlfriend, Frederique, he comes out to her with his desire for a sex change. He wants to hit the play button on his life, which he says has been on pause for 30 years. Fred must either ride the wave of this sea change or abandon ship. The human heart is a lot to take on, and it is maybe even more difficult a thing to believe in. Dolan does both. He sees something unattainably beautiful inside Laurence and Fred, and tries to expose their depths with every cinematic tool he can think of. Around them he builds an extremely romantic melodrama that cascades over ten years their lives, and the movie is wonderful. "Laurence Anyways" feels like a high-five for the soul.
Dolan’s characters face daunting life choices, but they also have their victories and celebrations. Laurence may ultimately be fired from her job, but her first day in class as a woman is so happy that it becomes a hallucinatory dance party. An island tryst may disintegrate into anger, but it begins with a cloud that rains underwear and pajamas down on the two lovers. Dolan balances the highs and lows of his characters in a way that is constantly surprising, not only because of the emotional resonance of scenes like these, but also the sheer audacity of his expression. He is unashamed to steal from every aspect of visual culture, whether that be fashion, music videos, photography, or cinema new and old, but he also seems to approach each scene with the same question in mind: "What have I never seen in a film before?"
This paradox is perfectly embodied in Laurence, who has held two competing self-images in mind since his, and now her, birth. Even Frederique, already equipped with the masculine diminutive, subtly offers Laurence the deepest support she can give: "If you want to take the next step," she tells him, "I'm your man." Dolan uses these dualities to crack the movie open. He allows it room to hold naturalistic performances next to cartoonish caricatures, still and composed conversations by neon dance parties, and vast emotion underneath a poised and affected surface. The film's structure even holds competing timelines together, as the story comes to a close on both the first and last meetings Laurence and Fred will ever have. The film's title is the first thing we see, and the last thing we hear. Everything in the film is in opposition to itself, yet everything is balanced.
Dolan, now on his third film, is confident. He takes his time. The movie is long enough and covers a great enough time span that the word "epic" will be thrown at it. It is brazen and stylized enough that it will be called "indulgent." But if the movie were to grow legs and walk down the street, the reaction would be much the same as that of so many bystanders to Laurence himself, over six feet tall, heels, wig, manly face, flashy dress. Some will gawk, some will avert their eyes, but others still will be struck unexpectedly smitten.