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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Canadian Film Review: Laurence Anyways (2012)

* * *

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clement

With an eye for visual flair and a sense for well-rounded and realized characters, writer/director Xavier Dolan is poised to become one of Canada's best filmmakers - if he can find a way to curb his self-indulgent tendencies at least a little. His third feature, Laurence Anyways, is always wonderful to look at and often moving, but it's story is far too thin to warrant its nearly three hour running time. It's a good movie, but could have been a great one with a tighter, more focused narrative.

Spanning a decade, from 1989 through 1999, Laurence Anyways is about the complex, and perhaps doomed, relationship between its eponymous character (Melvil Poupard) and his girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clement). Together for about two years as the film opens, and seemingly quite happy, the relationship is irrevocably changed when Laurence reveals that he was born the wrong gender and wants to transition. The revelation leaves Fred at a loss, wondering where, exactly, that leaves her. She's also understandably hurt at the notion that Laurence considers their life together to have been a lie, but she ultimately decides to stay and support Laurence through this major life change. Somewhat less supportive, at first, is Laurence's mother (Nathalie Baye), who is willing to accept Laurence's decision but insists that Laurence's sickly father be protected from the truth, which essentially means making Laurence persona non grata at their home.

With Fred's help, Laurence begins to live life as a woman (albeit one still named Laurence), which eventually results in her losing her job as a teacher when the parents of her students band together and demand that she be fired. At about the same time Fred reaches her breaking point. She lives in a near constant state of fear for Laurence's safety and longs for the comforts of a societally acceptable relationship, one which will not inspire hostile stares everywhere they go. At a party she meets Albert (David Savard), with whom she has an affair that leads to the end of her relationship with Laurence. The film picks up years later, when Fred has long since moved away, married Albert and had a child with him. Laurence, meanwhile, has progressed further in her transition and has a new girlfriend (Magalie Lepine-Blondeau) but remains fixated on Fred, who has served as the inspiration for Laurence's first book of poetry. Laurence and Fred reunite and briefly run away together, but though the love is still there, the things that drove them apart before are still there as well. After several more years apart, and a novel written by Laurence about their relationship, they meet again - but hanging in the air is the question of whether anything has changed and whether it ever will.

One of the strengths of Laurence Anyways is its sensitivity and fairness to both Laurence and Fred. That it would be sympathetic to Laurence's struggles is a given; that it would give equal weight to Fred's is not. Fred supports Laurence out of love but begins to feel somewhat neglected - Laurence needs so much support and understanding that Fred can't bring herself to ask for support for her own struggles, which include an unplanned pregnancy that she feels would put too much pressure on an already vulnerable relationship and partner. Further, while she loves and will always love Laurence, to be together increasingly requires her to sacrifice her own sense of sexual identity (demonstrated most intensely in a subtle moment when Laurence and Fred are reunited the first time and Fred discovers that Laurence now has breasts), in addition to the security (however unhappy) she has with the family she has created with Albert. Clement's performance is astonishingly good, bringing out all the complexities and contradictions of Fred's feelings for Laurence, as well as her feelings about herself and her own life. Her fiery performance contrasts nicely with the more subdued work of Poupaud, who plays Laurence with a mixture of delicacy and bravery, playing her as so relieved to finally get to be herself that she seems almost afraid to impose on others for fear that doing so will result in rejection. The character is not depicted as a martyr, but as a person, imperfect but no less worthy of happiness than anyone else.

Dolan crafts his characters magnificently, allowing them to behave to each other in ways that are sometimes ugly, but which never feel dishonest. There is a sense of truth to the way that the characters interact with each other, even though they are surrounded by the sometimes fanciful visual choices favoured by Dolan. He mixes fantasy and reality very well, and makes beautiful use of color throughout, sometimes splashing vibrant colors across the screen and sometimes opting for more restrained and evocative uses of it as a means of expression. He's a great all-around filmmaker, one whose direction has a lot of style, and whose writing has a lot of depth - but the fault with Laurence Anyways is that there's too much of a good thing and the story simply can't sustain itself for the length of the film's running time. But, oh, it is beautiful.

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