Directed by Xavier Dolan. Starring Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye Club, IFI, Dublin, 161 min
It’s 1989 in Montreal, where college lecturer Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and his film-maker girlfriend Frédérique (Suzanne Clément) are madly, deliriously in love. Together they giddily make lists of Things That Minimise Our Pleasure. Together, they giddily make out in the car wash.
Things are perfect until Laurence announces that he can’t go on living as a woman trapped in a man’s body. Frédérique (Fred for short) is surprised and devastated but can’t stay away. For 10 years, as Laurence undergoes his transformation into a woman, he and Fred play out the ne plus ultra of star-crossed romances. They break up; she marries someone else; they make up. She needs a man; he needs his own breasts.
Dazzling, heartbreaking and epic, Xavier Dolan’s remarkable third feature was the deserving winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes this year; Clément, additionally took home the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Actress. In a marketplace where queer has become increasingly synonymous with soft and exotic coming-of-age narratives, Laurence Anyways rips up the rule book and starts over.
To this end, Québécois director Dolan repeatedly pokes at our comfort zone: Laurence’s first day lecturing in a frock makes us squirm and applaud in equal measure. Throughout Laurence and Fred occupy all points of the gender spectrum. They’re both swaggeringly masculine and ravishingly feminine – sometimes simultaneously, sometimes competitively so.
It’s not just the sex change. This big, dreamy, audacious picture has larger questions about relationships and identity. Can anyone be true to his or her inner self in the context of romantic love? More importantly, should anyone?
The film-maker’s stylish, heightened presentation echoes Fred’s bi-polarity and a constellation of visual arts. Social occasions morph into big-haired, 1980s MTV promos; garish jumpers rain from the sky; sinister zoom-outs reduce the principals to boxed, miniature tableaux.
It’s long: a subplot involving a troupe of ancient queens seems to exist only for Dolan to pretend he’s making The Leopard. And yet not long enough: a major twist is left for the viewer to deduce.
Even these inconsistencies don’t amount to a caveat. If one can’t cheer on the breathtaking audaciousness of Dolan’s transsexual melodrama, the inventiveness of Yves Bélanger’s cinematography and the largesse of Poupaud and Clément’s performances, one should probably stay out of the picture house altogether.
Roll with it and it’s a ménage à trois break-up: we’ve spent 161 minutes with these people, after all.