Stylish, witty and clever, Xavier Dolan’s Queer Palm winner Laurence Anyways shows the pain of reinvention, the tragedy of impossible love and the survival of the spirit.
The Day I Became A Woman by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The renaissance man is back. Xavier Dolan may have handed over the acting to the more-than-capable hands, legs, lips and eyes of Melvil Poupaud, but the writer, director, editor and costume designer is still very much in control. In fact, Laurence Anyways is all the more enjoyable for its director’s behind the camera retreat. Not that Dolan’s screeching performances in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats weren’t utterly enjoyable, but his latest film marks a sea change. For one, it’s not a Nouvelle Vague film updated for the queer sensibilities of the noughties, nor a homage to all of Dolan’s favourite pieces of world cinema. Instead it’s a fresh vision and an original story put together with all of Dolan’s irrepressible fervour and flamboyant grace.
A Bildungsroman over the decade of a man’s journey into womanhood, Laurence Anyways features an incredible performance from Melvil Poupaud, the straight man coming out to his long-term lover Fred (Suzanne Clément) and to his estranged family, dipping his toe into a long fantasised world of earrings, eye shadow and nail varnish. As well as a clever sequence in which teacher Laurence’s paperclips are turned into artificial nails caressing his hair, Dolan’s 50mph script careens us through the whimsical (the list of things that minimise our pleasure), the freakish (the Five Roses – a put-together family of antiquarian performers) and the sublime – the scene in which Fred hangs it all and goes to a Christmas ball footloose and fancy-free is out of kilter tonally with the rest of the film, but still entirely mesmerising.
A lot of Laurence Anyways can be read by queer audiences as a coming out tale, but it’s to Dolan’s credit that he makes a minority subject like transgenderism so universal. Dolan captures with great elegance and sensitivity Laurence’s journey into womanhood through a Kinsey-like scale of femininity; the man with a penchant for gregarious shirts, the short-haired punk with an earring and a skirt, the all-too-brief Anna Karina wig, and finally the suited successful poetess being interviewed for a magazine. Dolan deftly visualises Laurence’s fetishes in slow-mo hair-twirling, and punctuates the film’s climaxes with clever coups de théâtre – Laurence’s last birthday supper as a man reflected in the bottom of a wine glass – a strange globe of fish-eye loneliness – or the frenetic, claustrophobic torrent of words in a carwash that leads to Laurence’s asphyxiated confession, bursting out with the opening gambit “I’m going to die.”
Outsiders with their own secret language, bonded together like enfants terribles, Fred and Laurence are another of cinema’s star-crossed couples and Laurence Anyways is as much about Fred as its eponymous hero. After initial suspicions that he must be gay and relationship-bending recriminations like “Everything I love about you, you hate!”, Fred does her best to be a modern woman of the ’90s, uninhibited and accepting. She lends him her tops, gives him make-up tips, and shows him a kind of sisterly solidarity, helping him to summon up the courage to take on school, and life, as a woman. And despite the never-flinching eyes of others in a breakfast restaurant or the ever-receding sense of normalcy, in the end it’s the unspoken and untimely lies that tear their relationship to shreds.
As Fred falls into the arms of her future husband and hides herself in the life of a suburban housewife in Trois-Rivières, Laurence is sacked, beaten up and befriends Les Five Roses – an eclectic bunch of flowers in sateen, plaid and worn velvet. Eventually, Laurence finishes his first collection of poems and finds a new girl, but neither Fred nor Laurence are able to forget their impossible love. They throw caution to the wind and relight the fires of their former relationship on a trip to the Isle of Black, and for a moment they’re reunited in a fragile replica of the love they once had. Only it can’t last – both Fred and Laurence have changed too much to go backwards. But still they collide, like forgetful moths, unable to admit to themselves there’s nothing left of their one true love – and both abandon a final meeting in a bar to escape the torture of recrimination and their irretrievable former selves.
Alongside Poupaud, both Suzanne Clément as Fred and Nathalie Baye as Laurence’s caustic mother are tremendous vortices of energy – the one effervescent and rampaging, the other quietly and desperately throbbing with fraught emotion. Laurence Anyways isn’t however a Québécois rebuff to Almodovar’s All About My Mother, and this is no homage to womankind, even with a former man at its centre. Dolan’s breathtaking opening montage of Laurence, dressed as a woman, running the gauntlet of onlookers’ scandalised gazes, glimpsed by the camera only through the mist, from behind and with only one teasing suggestion of a profile shot, shows from the off that Laurence Anyways isn’t about the big reveal, but rather the delicate spaces in-between – the mists of man, woman, straight, gay, freak, normal.
It’s a breakneck script, but in a Bosch-like frieze of tragedy reveals the very real anguish of a break-up, the painful piecing together of a long-repressed identity and the emotional torture of an impossible love. There are intensely moving moments, like Laurence’s coming-out to his mother, a boy again in the family home, confessing that the wall that grew up between them was built by an inability to be himself. Sometimes it’s excruciating, like the long-drawn out silence of the class when Laurence appears as a woman in school for the first time, or else cleverly economic – Fred’s sudden decision to buy a pregnancy test revealed in a stunning performance without words. Dolan’s story is perhaps too decentred and too high-octane to give due consideration to its most tender moments, but Laurence Anyways remains stylish, intelligent and funny. Like Laurence walking his school’s corridors in drag, Dolan is no more the playground punk, but a real revolutionary.
Laurence Anyways is released in the UK on 30th November 2012