Xaiver Dolan, a 20-something French Canadian auteur, has made his name on audacity - on the striking effect his age, his outspoken demeanor, and his films have had on unsuspecting viewers. But "Laurence Anyways" sees him graduate from brash upstart status. Though unwieldy and excessively long - yes, it still displays vestiges of youthly excess; of an overly ambitious man let loose with a camera - "Laurence" is undoubtedly the work of a maturing filmmaker. Not yet a great artist, perhaps, but no longer an aimless enfant terrible.
Melvil Poupaud stars as the titular character; a transsexual man entering both his 30s and the 1990s (Dolan’s long-form scrawl - the film, running over 160 minutes, was the longest to play at Cannes last year - stretches from the last gasps of the 1980s towards the glimmer of a new millennium.) An early-in-the-film announcement to his girlfriend that he’s a "woman trapped in a man’s body" - and that he wants to begin dressing and externally behaving as this woman - goes over about as well as you’d expect.
And so Dolan follows - with poppy, borrowed-from-MTV energy - the ebbs and flows of their relationship; perhaps his most subversive stroke being the relative irrelevance of Poupard’s gender identification. His on-and-off romance with Fred (the girlfriend, portrayed with a fragile vulnerability by Suzanne Clement) is still plagued by temptations; by families; by the demands of his art (writing); by the city that holds them; by the uncaring curveballs thrown by the real world. Dolan hasn’t tried to make ’the’ film about transsexuality; he’s made a film about a relationship; and "Laurence Anyways" is better for his laser-focus. Sure, there’s an unshakeable portentousness here; a stretch for the transcendent; but it never pretends to be all knowing.
Instead, it’s stuffed to the gills with stylistic excess; with Dolan’s visions of a life exuberantly lived. He starts the film - and punctures it - with constant close-ups of contextualized faces, devoid of make-up; he’s studying the contours, the imperfections, and the identities they withhold or display. Style and substance intermingle; the viewer never knowing where one ends and the other begins. Dolan masks his theme in endless slow-motion renderings of his characters; constantly trying to turn a bare narrative into abstract poetry; constantly trying to find the profound in the tangible. But the tale of Laurence and Fred, and of her intermittently vain attempts to stand by him/her as he undergoes his own transformation, is smaller than his approach. His maturity has not yet matched his ambition; he’s still reaching slightly farther than he can grasp.