Laurence Anyways starts off with tremendous promise, not surprising for a film that won the Un Certain Regard for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 along with the Queer Palm Award. The film picked up a slew of other festival awards throughout 2010, but it's destined to be one of those "love it or hate it" films with a wildly uneven tone that starts off with tremendous authenticity and emotional resonance but quickly spirals into an over-stylized and intentionally artsy film that feels precious at times for the sake of being precious yet somehow still stays on point and paints a rather touching portrait of love in a myriad of expressions.
You may love this film, especially if you identify with its themes or love the works of writer/director Xavier Dolan or are simply into indie queer cinema's more artistic and experimental side. While I myself would ordinarily qualify as that critic who appreciates experimental queer cinema, Laurence Anyways never grabbed hold of me like I really wanted yet did manage to keep my attention despite what felt like the occasionally gratuitous slo-mo, a Dolan trademark, and an an unnecessarily long running time.
The film begins in 1989. Fred (Suzanne Clement) and Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) are two years into their relationship when Laurence announces that he wishes to become a woman. It's not that Laurence wishes to end his relationship with Fred, whom he still loves dearly. It's a deeply personal and intimate decision that has its roots outside the relationship, yet it's a decision that is not easily supported by Fred. When Laurence begins exploring this desire with greater intensity to the point of one day dressing as a woman for his teaching job, easily one of the film's most resonant and wonderful scenes, the chasm between Fred and Laurence intensifies. Laurence Anyways is very much about this fracture and what it means for their love and for the more universal expression of love. On some level, it calls into question issues about societal pressure and perception and all those things that make us love until we don't.
It is not uncommon for those of a more progressive or feminist nature to resist society's absolute insistence upon gender roles and gender assignment and gender expectations, but can we truly transcend our expectations to such a degree that if our loved one made such a decision as did Laurence could we accept it? Still love them?
It's an interesting dilemma and one explored in tremendous detail by Dolan. The film's artistic expression isn't so much gratuitous as it is simply unnecessary, a distracting influence in a film that would have been far more effective without the distraction. That said, a full day after watching the film I still find myself processing the visuals, the imagery, the messages and Dolan's dialogue in such a way that makes me believe the film remains effective despite that occasional distraction.
Both Clement and Poupaud are exceptional here, Clement certainly most deserving of the Cannes Film Festival recognition. They exhibit a tremendous passion for one another that is beautifully captured and is given time to be fully lived out over the course of the film's nearly three hours. Dolan deserves credit for creating a story that in many ways is taboo, especially given its 1989 setting, yet never really feels taboo because he so completely focuses the story on the expression and living out of love rather than exploiting the Laurence's transexuality. It's a difficult task and Dolan pulls it off beautifully here.
Laurence Anyways is a Canadian production in French with English subtitles. Much like Dolan's story transcends love, so too the film transcends the language barrier and for those who resonate with its story it should easily be a film that will be appreciated regardless of its language. While the film didn't quite "wow" me on the level that it did some, it's a film that asks difficult questions, tells a meaningful story and adds Dolan's unique artistic sensibility to create a film that will linger in your heart long after the closing credits have rolled.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic