AFI Fest 2012
By Don Simpson | November 4, 2012
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Susie Almgren, Yves Jacques, Sophie Faucher, Magalie Lépine-Blondeau, David Savard, Catherine Bégin, Emmanuel Schwartz, Jacques Lavallée, Perette Souplex, Patricia Tulasne
Writer-director Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways begins in 1989, two years into Fred (Suzanne Clément) and Laurence’s (Melvil Poupaud) relationship. Everything seems hunky dory, until Laurence drops a bomb on Fred — he wants to become a woman, but he wants to continue his romantic relationship with Fred. Just because he wants to be a woman does not mean that he loves Fred any less. The problem is that Fred is attracted to men, not women.
As if dipping his toes into the pool of womanhood, Laurence begins to dress like a woman and wear makeup. As a result he is fired from his job, gets in barroom brawls and loses Fred. Laurence’s transition from male to female is a long and difficult one. As we jump forward through the years, we find Laurence in a relationship with Charlotte (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau) and Fred is married with a child. Nonetheless, everyone in the film is well aware that Fred is Laurence’s one true love; and as more and more celluloid passes through the projector, it seems all the more inevitable that Fred and Laurence will meet again. But as the years fly by, Laurence gets closer and closer to full-fledged womanhood and further away from Fred’s ideal.
What does it say about Fred, who once loved Laurence so much as a man, that she cannot love him anymore? More importantly, what does that say about love? Well, it says on at least some level, love can be quite superficial. We might say that love goes beyond appearances, but can it go beyond gender? Can love transcend societal pressures regarding gender and sexuality? Is Fred not attracted to Laurence because she is hardwired to only be attracted to men, or has society forced her to believe that?
With Laurence Anyways, Dolan tells an epic tale of Laurence’s struggle with identity and societal norms over the course of a decade. Laurence’s desire to be a woman is not a passing fad, like it was for so many new wave/punk/alternative scenesters in the early 1990s. (Admittedly, I was known to wear makeup in the late 1980s and early 1990s — I think most males who listened to The Cure would say the exact same thing.) I have often wondered why it is considered “normal” for women to wear make-up, but not men? Additionally, who determined that it is only normal for women to wear dresses and skirts? Why does anything have to be gender specific? Can we ever know equality as long as the lines of gender and sexuality exist?
The problem is that no matter how much time passes, mainstream society is not willing to accept someone like Laurence. This, I suspect, is precisely why Dolan made such a long and meandering film — to accent the fact that ten years pass and nothing changes. In fact, very little has changed in the 12 years since the conclusion of Laurence Anyways (1999) either. If anything has changed, it is within the segments of society that can be very clearly defined and identified by mainstream society, specifically gays and lesbians. When gender or sexuality is not as black and white — especially when it is in a state of transition — mainstream society seems to become confused and frightened. They might be okay with a man dressing up as a woman — as long as he does so in private or as part of a theatrical production — but a man becoming a woman is considered strange and unnatural. The problem is that gender and sexuality are not so black and white; and it is not fair to categorize people so strictly. One thing we should have learned from the length of time that humans have walked the earth is that gender and sexuality cannot be defined solely by one’s sexual organs, and attraction can be just as much mental as it is physical.
Of course, Dolan does set himself up for jokes about Laurence Anyways‘ epic 168 minute run-time being because so much of the film plays at half-speed. If there is one directorial signature of a Dolan film, it would be his use of slow motion. In anyone else’s hands, the relentlessly repetitive cinematic device would get really tiresome; but in Dolan’s hands it signifies his unique approach to the poetry of movements. As if stating that 24 frames per second is much too fast for the audience to truly comprehend human movements, Dolan reveals the minute detail of every single frame. Whether or not the slowed down scenes reveal any greater significance that would not be picked up at normal speed is up to the eyes of the beholder, but I will state that Dolan always seems to find ways to make the methodical pacing work artistically. While Rainer Werner Fassbinder often used his actors as mannequins, making them stay frigidly still in the background until the action came to them; Dolan uses his actors’ bodies as sheer vehicles of movement, costuming them in colors and patterns to further accent their motions.
I will say that while I think I understand why Dolan opted for such an epic run-time, I do not necessarily think the slow pacing benefits the narrative (and maybe he does rely a bit too much on slow motion). Additionally, Dolan’s Almadovar-goes-to-Miami inspired production design is a bit too distracting for me, primarily because everything is so goddamn gaudy. Otherwise, Laurence Anyways reveals a much higher level of maturity for Dolan — though I do prefer Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother on some level — who will hopefully finally shake the style-over-substance refrain of so many hateful film critics.