A Strange Serenity

A Review of Xavier Dolan’s Film Laurence Anyways

Sherry Coman

Laurence Anyways is the story of a man who wants to continue a life-long committed soulmate relationship to a woman, while embarking on gender reassignment to become a woman also. It is about love that endures and also fails, even while the lovers cannot expunge each other from the soul. And I’m not sure which is more astonishing: the fact that at age 23, Québecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan has already made a third fine film, or that at age 23, he has already understood so much, and with such maturity, about the complexity of human relationships.

I wasn’t sure at the start. Laurence Anyways begins with intellectual exercise: lovers entwined on a bed, and in a car, reciting out loud the things that ‘limit our pleasure’. The items are all expressions of banality that derive from a culture too invested in surface living; by making their list, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fréderique or Fred (Suzanne Clément) keep themselves on the outside of banality; they are self-imposed outcasts of the kind of day-to-day clutter that make life “routine”. They are passionate and devoted to each other, despite that the film’s first dramatic turning point – the revelation of gender identity – happens in that most drôle location of romantic thrill-seekers – the car wash. It took me a long while to try to figure out whether Dolan was trying to establish his lovers, tongue-in-cheek, as a kitsch counterpoint to the ‘banal’ normal lives of the people around them, or whether his characters were so invested in their drama that they failed to see how it had developed its own banality.

Luckily, it was neither. And I do mean luckily. Because this film teeters through sections of its two hours and 40 minutes perilously near to being a film which is parodying itself. But perhaps its ultimate brilliance, is that the soulfulness of its characters, their relentless generosity (even while they are unkind to others), the depth of their passionate longing for each other and the inevitability of their fate all make their way through the landscape(s) of cultural dissipation (whether that is colourless suburban Québec, or electro-rocking nightclub-pinks-and-greys flickering Montréal) tied by a love that won’t die.

What I loved about this film is its relentless heart. Love pulsates without sexuality: it is a really remarkable thing that a film about the sexually-obssessed 80s and 90s that involves transgendered identity and the sexual morality of a me-generation – does not ever once give us real sex. It is one of the great strengths of Laurence Anyways.  Dolan wants us to be absolutely clear that this is about love, about two people who believed their generation could “handle this”, the ‘this’ being a self-reinvention that was not about the outward shows of protest that characterize the “look” of the students in the corridors of the school where Laurence teaches, who watch her arrive on her first open day as a woman. The punk make-up and torn jackets and studded faces of those staring at her, are a fantastic counterpoint to the otherwise elegant and tasteful Laurence, in the slow-motion parade of reactions. We are absolutely meant to wonder, who is in identity crisis?

The two central performances are very moving. A moment I will take away from this festival, already, with attachment, is an image of Fred sitting on a bathroom floor, smiling with pride and affection, as Laurence applies makeup for the very first time. Her agonized journey is one that almost upstages Laurence’s (and that may be true also of performance), which I found a fault of the film until I realized that the film is not really about Laurence by herself. It is entirely about Laurence in relation to her great love.

The lovers part. The lovers are then reunited by art. By the art of Laurence. In their reunion come betrayals of others. And then, in the smaller, but unexpectedly profound betrayals of each other, there is the realization of what has actually been sacrificed so that one of them could find peace. But it’s okay. In a strange way, their’s is a happy ending. And you sense, as the credits roll, that the story isn’t done even so.

A word about style. Comparisons have been made of Dolan to Almodovar: both are gay filmmakers, both have a style that embraces larger-than-life emotion. At the moment, Almodovar has more storytelling craft, a sharper eye for how to keep the entire emotional line coherent. But Dolan has a nuancing of emotion that I have not seen in Almodovar. The quivering lip of Fred is given its full edit, the time it takes Laurence to experience fully that first moment as a woman in her classroom, is given the rich long sustained breath it deserves – instead of just being a story beat. We are held in it to the point of excruciating waiting — for what will happen. And that’s how it should be. It may be to his credit that Dolan takes too long with the beats of characters: frankly if a filmmaker is going to err one way or the other, I’d much prefer them to err on this side. And yet the sharp editing of the afore-mentioned car wash moment, contrasted with a long, langorous shot of Fred indulging her own desire for sexual and gender expression at a ball later in the film, made absolutely clear to me that Dolan knows how much time to spend with characters, in the right moments, so that we truly feel the dilemma. He can snap the car-wash scene at its climax into a shot of Fred walking down the street away from it and be right on top of ‘story’. But I think he just prefers to soak in the emotional realities and ride them for all they are worth. Go for it, I say. As a result, we are also shown a much more genuine and true (I imagine) profile of the process of gender reassignment, which in this film happens over ten years. The earliest scenes of Laurence as a woman show her head bare in the cut she had worn as a man. We are not ever meant to think of this as an overnight transition – and with that comes the learning realisation that the truth is the truth, at every single moment and every stage of that transformation.

Laurence Anyways is sooo worth seeing no matter how it impacts you. So much of the mise en scène is absolutely gorgeous. The first shots of a transformed Laurence emerging out of mist and fog are kitschy-poetic, but also serene. There is in the end, a strange serenity to Laurence Anyways. We get so inside the characters that we ultimately absorb and do not care about the particulars of the world they are moving through, including the strange coldness, melting like the ice of the Isle of Black that they escape to, that can be found in the mother (played by Nathalie Baye) and Fred’s sister (Monia Chokri) — except to notice when it is warm or cold. We get drawn into each of these sad and lost characters who surround the lovers and recognize people we have known, or even ourselves. They are indeed banal, but Laurence and Fred can’t help but ultimately redeem them.

Sherry Coman is a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology, in the University of Toronto, where she also co-teaches a course entitled Film, Prophecy and Culture with Brian Walsh. She teaches film at Humber College and is a free lance story editor for film.

This review was originally published on Sherry’s blog, hanah dreaming. Laurence Anyways will be playing at the TIFF Bell LightBox September 21st-27th.

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