A mess narratively, overwrought aesthetically, and somewhat akin to being beat over the head with a sledgehammer thematically, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways shouldn’t be as effective as it is. There is a great dual-character study hidden in its three hours that a great editor could surely find, but what appears on screen is bloated more than occasionally. The story, of a biological male named Laurence (Melvyn Poupaud, a bit monotonous at times) who wants to be a woman, and the woman named Frederique (Suzanne Clément, great), or Fred for short (again, subtlety is not this film’s strength), who loves him, spans nearly a decade, starting at the end and ending at the start but progressing chronologically in between.
Dolan opens his film with Laurence out in public and trains his camera on the faces of everybody who looks at her. Slow-motion makes each look an intrusive, judgmental act, a demonstration that anyone who is somehow regarded as “Other”—a transsexual in this case—is victimized in public places purely for being himself or herself. Never mind, for a moment, those who feel entitled to ask questions and pass judgment and share their opinions simply because the listener is somehow different (as a waitress does in one of the film’s best scenes), even those who will never interact with you, will never have anything to do with you, who merely look, are obstacles with their judgmental gaze. It’s the film’s best sequence, a cliché turned into a valid thesis statement purely by the power of Dolan’s aesthetics. The only problem, aside from the fact that it’s all downhill from there, is that Dolan repeats this sequence again in the first half of the film, this time in the school where Laurence teaches, and so it both cheapens the initial scene and, this time, looks like it could be pulled from any number of films that have had even one scene in a school. It also reveals a larger problem that runs through Laurence Anyways: The overuse of slow-motion. With the exception of the opening, Dolan’s indulgence ranges from irritating to embarrassing (a reunion between Laurence and Fred, where clothing is thrown across the room) and never climbs back up. Better is his use of music, which can also be overwrought (a haphazardly edited time-lapse sequence set to Beethoven’s 5th) but can also invigorate entire scenes (a club scene set to The Cure’s “Funeral Party” or a house party to Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”).
By and large, Laurence Anyways’ gets worse each hour. The first hour is a pop-art music video with a killer soundtrack, expressionist color palettes, and a romance whose dialogue is at times pretentious but always fitting, whether it be a list of things that “minimize our pleasure” or more serious pleads about, say, gender identity. Save for a few missteps, it’s an absolute delight. The second hour is a strong character study, less of Laurence, whose change is less about her than those around her, specifically Fred. Laurence does not like the negative attention she gets or the impact her decision has on her romance or her family, but her relationship with Fred challenges Fred more, and the family aspect of the film, while intended to be look at Laurence’s back=story and upbringing, is choppy and inconsistent. Laurence’s mom is a poorly written, motiveless cipher who only confuses Laurence’s back-story more each time she shows up, and her father is a nonentity. Instead, the film is at its best when it focuses on the psychological adjustments that Fred has to make. Poupaud’s performance is not strong enough to make unwanted attention in public spaces a gripping point of the film, but Clément brings precisely the correct balance of tenderness, uncertainty, ferocity, and confusion to make Fred the most interesting character in the story. We don’t ever get a good enough look at how Laurence’s public life changes when she begins to live as a woman, but we get a fantastic look at her relationship with Fred, and so the film’s best quality becomes the love story at its heart. Both Laurence’s biological family and especially the second family, a group of drag queens who take Laurence in after a fight, add little of note to the film.
Laurence Anyways is a roller-coaster, not the advocate for the post-gender utopia it wants to be or even the heart-wrenching epic love story it thinks it is, but a stuffy, structural mess saved by effective stretches and beautiful camerawork even in its most indulgent aesthetic conceits. Occurrences like raining-clothes or indoor-floods border on heavy-handed magical realism, and even the love story has no need to unfold like a sprawling epic over 10 years. A third act shift that looks at other relationships is a red herring more than it is character development, and with it comes the unshakeable realization that these people are stuck with the youth from the film’s beginning, never growing up very much. In other words, so much of this film doesn’t work, but a few great scenes and a smart, comprehensive look at how changes in identities can reverberate among those around you as much of yourself allows for an affecting love story. Excessive as Dolan is, he certainly gives plenty to chew on.