Transitional Phases
By Matt Connolly

Laurence Anyways
Dir. Xavier Dolan, Canada/France, Breaking Glass Pictures

Since arriving on the festival circuit four years ago with I Killed My Mother at the tender age of twenty, Dolan has become perhaps the most prominent queer art-house upstart to emerge in roughly a decade. It’s a reputation that feels more than justified. Beyond his wunderkind biography and photo-shoot chic (those oh-so-adorable chunky specs and gravity-defying coiffure), Dolan has shown within his three features—I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and now Laurence Anyways—the sort of spellbinding stylistics and unapologetic engagement with LGBT imagery and themes that recall the excitement (if not the ideological urgency) of the New Queer Cinema twenty years prior. Such a comparison maybe smacks of both nostalgia and a knee-jerk impulse to anoint fresh queer auteurs. Indeed, the desire to assign an authorial signature to Dolan less than five years into his filmmaking career might obscure his best qualities. There are undoubtedly some common narrative and formal strands that one can discern running throughout his work: playful fantasy interludes; dreamy slow-motion sequences scored to throbbing indie dance-pop; seemingly sophisticated protagonists caught in tangled webs of emotional and erotic complication; fashionable, aloof maternal figures. Yet just making an auteurist checklist fails to account for Dolan’s adventurousness in experimenting with various techniques and the devil-may-care casualness of his explorations of same-sex desire, which exhibits a blessed lack of self-congratulation or hand-wringing. The free-wheeling nature of Dolan’s aesthetic can result in some dubious decisions, but I’ll take the risks of his throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks instincts over the dubious “restraint” seen in too many contemporary films chronicling LGBT experience.

Dolan’s films are sleek, visually witty, and disarmingly empathetic—qualities that mixed somewhat uneasily in I Killed My Mother (a good movie whose less graceful aesthetic tics bespeak a bit of first-film-itis) but clicked together with blissful ease in Heartbeats. That sophomore effort, chronicling two friends (Dolan and Monia Chokri) and their mutual obsession with a gorgeous loner (Niels Schneider), is an evocative slice of twentysomething romantic angst, spun with just the right combination of pathos and narcissism-tweaking humor. One could criticize Dolan’s seeming lack of ambition following I Killed My Mother, burrowing even further into the fleeting moods and sensations of youthful ennui rather than expanding outwards into the sort of grander ambitions usually seen in a new filmmaker’s follow-up. (For the record, I find the pocket-sized Heartbeats to be nearly flawless.) No such claims can be launched against Laurence Anyways, the sprawling tale of a transwoman and her on-again-off-again relationship with her female lover over the course of ten years. Drawing upon similar formal and narrative strategies in his earlier work, Dolan nevertheless goes bigger here. Laurence Anyways practically hums with the exhilaration of a director digging in his heels and pushing his boundaries, from its near-three-hour running time to its more explicit engagement with the cultural politics of queer existence. If the film ultimately reveals some of his artistic and ideological limits, it also offers a thrilling new variation of Dolan’s still-forming worldview, mapping his emotional intimacy and expressivity onto a large-scale canvas.

From the beginning, it is clear that Dolan remains invested in using cinema to vivify the subjective experiences of his protagonists, even as he newly acknowledges how his queer characters live in relation to the world around them. We first glimpse Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) after she has already lived for several years as a woman, though her face remains unseen by the camera. Rather, Dolan and cinematographer Yves Bélanger film her in a series of sumptuous slow-motion images, her powder-blue pantsuit and long brown locks floating down a city street as passersby look her over with expressions ranging from intrigued to embarrassed to disapproving. As the ominous pulse of Fever Rey’s “If I Had a Heart” rumbles in the background, Laurence makes her way through the crossfire of sideways glances, eventually disappearing into a haze of smoke. Moody and sinuous, the opening places us at once inside and outside of Laurence’s head. We feel both the self-conscious freedom of her movement through the world and the subtle politics of gesture and gazes around her. Yet Laurence also remains just beyond our reach, her visage obscured and body fragmented in a manner that makes her a striking mystery. The sequence’s placement at the film’s beginning accounts for some of that obfuscation, but it also speaks to Dolan’s increasingly layered visual portrayal of his central character—a woman with whom we are aligned even as we are asked to contemplate the complexities of her identity and experience.

One of the most striking aspects of Laurence Anyways comes from its understanding of Laurence’s trans status as both singular and relatable. The film refreshingly avoids earnest speechifying in relating the everyday details and kaleidoscopic emotional realities of Laurence’s burgeoning identity. When we first meet Laurence in 1989, she is living as a man. Dolan reveals her welling desire to come out as trans through a simple yet effective visual motif: her appreciation of women’s long hair, be it the college students where she teaches literature or ladies she passes on the street. A particularly poignant shot finds Laurence gazing at a number of female students taking a test as she tenderly rubs the back of her own close-cropped hair. Such images ground Laurence’s burgeoning identity shift in the tactile moments of daily routine, making her revelation to those close to her organic without feeling too telegraphed. Once Laurence takes the first tentative steps towards living life as a woman, Dolan emphasizes her initial paranoia and fear and later exhilaration in a fabulous sequence at her university. The camera placed in the back of the classroom, Laurence enters the student-packed space in a pantsuit for the first time, standing silently before the group in silent anticipation. Dolan holds this shot for what seems like forever, with Laurence dwarfed in the background of the frame by her students. Finally, a young woman raises her hand. She has a question about the syllabus. That’s it. The camera then speedily pushes in onto Laurence’s relieved face, before cutting to a series of tracking shots of Laurence striding down the hall (in an elegant mirroring of the opening) as students glance upon her with looks that range from quiet inquisitiveness to you-go-girl support. Electrifyingly scored to Headman’s “Moisture,” it plugs the viewer straight into the high-wire excitement of Laurence’s emancipation.

At heart, though, Laurence Anyways is less about one woman’s emerging identity than two individuals’ fierce, flawed attempts to sustain a romantic connection rocked by changes both within and without. When she begins her transition, Laurence is living with Fred (Suzanne Clément), an aspiring filmmaker paying her extended dues in low-scale production jobs. Laurence and Fred share an intense private language. An early scene finds them rattling off the various “things that minimize their pleasure,” laughing raucously as Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes” blasts over the car stereo. They are boho-chic to the maximum, but Dolan does little to tweak the preciousness of their emotional and erotic dynamic. He respects the genuine romantic fire that fuels their intellectual duologues, even as he recognizes that such all-consuming passion runs the risk of self-combustion. Fred is a touch dumbfounded when Laurence reveals her true identity to her early on in the film, but she is determined to make it work. As the disapproval of her family and the silent judgment of the world accumulate, however, Fred’s will begins to crumble. An unplanned pregnancy right around the time of Laurence’s initial transitioning leads to a secret abortion, the weight of which ultimately splinters apart the relationship. Laurence and Fred both move on to other romantic partners—Fred marries the nice-if-square Albert (David Savard), while Laurence moves in with the adoring Charlotte (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau)—but the intensity of their amour fou keeps them locked in each other’s hearts.

Dolan is firing on all cylinders in representing Laurence and Fred’s tumultuous relationship; their operatic emotions are revealed in stirring fantasy sequences. (One stunner finds a reunited Laurence and Fred walking arm-and-arm through a seaside town as various brightly colored garments float down from the sky—a chaotic swarm of gender signifiers briefly, blissfully recast as a cornucopia of visual pleasures.) For all their forays into expressionist reverie, however, Dolan and Bélanger also prove remarkably adept at the sort of realist handheld camerawork that would seem the antithesis of his often meticulously constructed and color-coordinated frames. Bélanger knows just when to hold characters in tight close-up, when to messily swerve to others in the frame, and when to dip down to catch a telling fidget of the hand or jerk of the body. This approach also reveals the level of trust Dolan puts in Poupaud and Clément to sustain both intensity and nuance through long-take scenes of brutal emotional recriminations. His faith is more than justified. Poupaud and Clément unearth layers of resentment, pain, ambivalence, and blinding passion within Laurence and Fred that illuminate the depth of their union even as they reveal its impossibility. For all their blasé intellectualism and cultural chic, Fred and Laurence are tragic romantics at heart. The same can be said of Dolan.

Laurence Anyways’ investment in the interpersonal dynamic between Fred and Laurence is so intense that it’s easy to forget that the film is not about a “conventional” romantic couple. From a humanist, we’re-all-the-same-underneath standpoint, this is a triumph of sorts. And yet Dolan isn’t telling a boy-meets-girl story—this is a boy-meets-girl-and-then-realizes-she’s-a-girl story, a point emphasized from the very beginning. The simultaneous insistence upon Laurence’s particular experience as a transwoman and the more “universal” storminess of Laurence and Fred’s relationship (as Laurence herself insists late in the film, their issues as a couple were present before her transition) requires a balancing act for Dolan—one that he occasionally stumbles while maintaining. The tension is most acute in moments when the film attempts to sketch the ostracism and hole-ridded social safety net that Laurence faces: termination of employment due to squeamish parents’ complaints, etc. The sincerity of these scenes are unquestionable, but they are somewhat hard to square with Laurence Anyways’ broader conception of Laurence’s trans status as an issue mostly in terms of her relationship to Fred. The physical and psychological transformations that Laurence undergoes also fade from view as the film progresses, with Dolan’s time-skipping screenplay eliding much of Laurence’s gradual shifts in appearance and temperament in order to sustain the emotional logic of the central romance. (In fairness, Dolan seems somewhat aware of this, including a voiceover interview between Laurence and a reporter that underscores the complications that Laurence faces in telling her story to an interested if not fully empathetic audience.) As a result, Dolan runs the risk of conceptualizing Laurence’s trans identity less as a lived reality and more as a loose metaphor for the uncontrollable internal changes that challenge and divide even the most passionate relationships. For a director whose visualizations of queer experience are (at their best) vibrantly expressionist without sacrificing erotic specificity, this marks less a failure of imagination and more a red flag: with increasing ambition comes a concomitant need to consider the fuller range of ideological implications undergirding his narrative and formal choices.

If the film flirts with downplaying the individuated nature of Laurence’s experience, it just as often offers a breathtaking portrait of her unique identity. Dolan’s fierce romantic sincerity is in full force in the film’s final passages—a chronology-scrambling mixture of melancholy and hope too heartrending to reveal here. (Hint: Craig Armstrong’s “Let’s Go Out Tonight” is present, so emotional devastation cannot be far behind.) To the very end, Laurence Anyways showcases how Dolan keeps attempting new ways to grab us, touch us, push us further into Fred and Laurence’s glorious, unattainable romance. It’s a bit glib to compare the ever-transforming Laurence to her creator, but it strikes me as appropriate that Dolan would at this point in his career be attracted to a character engaged in the messy, exciting process of becoming a truer version of herself. A triumph in its own right, Laurence Anyways simultaneously feels like a stop along an artistic path whose destination remains thrillingly undetermined.