Friday, May 17, 2013


As I was sitting on the metro north reading a film comment review of Xavier Dolan's third feature; Laurence Anyways, the story of a transgendered high school teacher/poet, a big guy dressed in 6" heels, black leggings, a tube top style shirt, a wig and make-up stepped on to this semi-crowded train and I immediately thought to myself; "that's brave." I really don't mean to sound patronizing but when you have the physique of a professional linebacker (like this guy did) and you're dressed in women's clothes (with confidence mind you) people are gonna stare and make you feel uncomfortable. I'm sorry but it takes some kind of bravery to stand amongst a bunch of strangers staring & most likely judging you. It'd be cool to live in a world where I don't have to think someone is brave for just being themselves but unfortunately that's the insecure world we live in and I don't think it'll be changing any time soon. Naturally I made a connection between this person on the train and Laurence, the main character of Xavier Dolan's latest film which I was literally in the middle of reading about. If there was ever a sign to write about a film – this was it.

I know the difference between a transvestite (which I’m assuming the guy on the train was) and someone whose transgendered (like Laurence) but the one thing they both have in common is that they don't necessarily feel comfortable in the skin they were given and/or the image/expectation that society has either directly or indirectly put on them. There's quite a few scenes in Laurence Anyways that truly convey the bravery it takes to not only identify with being another gender but to face the world with this new identity when so many people have always known you as a man (in Laurence's case). Laurence Alia is a fictitious character but he represents so many real people.
Truth be told, this film had been in the back of my mind since I saw it last year at TIFF but not necessarily for good reasons. Sorry if I set the tone for a positive review but I had some issues with Laurence Anyways. Even though I had very high hopes for Dolan's latest feature, this wasn't a case of me being disappointed because it didn't live up to some unrealistic expectation I had before seeing it (something I’m guilty of quite a bit). This film is flawed. I’ve had some time to think this one over and I realized it's better than I initially gave it credit for but there’s still an uneven feel. On one hand, Xavier Dolan DID manage to create one of the most complex characters in years (we'll get in to that later) but on the other hand this felt a little TOO stylized for a film with this kind of subject matter. Not to say that a filmmaker shouldn't put his/her own stamp on their work but in a film about the struggles of being transgendered things can get a little distracting when half the movie looks more like an 80's new wave music video. It’s difficult to take parts of this film seriously. Influence & inspiration is another thing that may rub some people the wrong way. Since the beginning of his filmmaking career Xavier Dolan has gotten a lot of heat for "heavily borrowing" from auteurs like Wong Kar Wai (the overuse of slow motion shots and the emphasis on rich colors) as well as Godard (the women in his films seem to be modeled after Anna Karina). But given that I'm such a huge Nicholas Winding Refn fan whose recent style is made up of so many elements from so many other filmmakers (Old school Michael Mann, Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth Anger, Takeshi Kitano, etc) I can’t really criticize Dolan for that. All I can say is that Xavier Dolan is still very young (he just turned 24) so it’s natural for a young filmmaker to borrow from people he/she admires. At least we have a director that young who admires filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai & Godard.

I like Dolan's approach to cinema even through its still developing. It serves as a contrast against all the other depressing & slow shit I love so much. I do see him eventually coming in to his own style but right now he's still stuck somewhere in between selected scenes from In The Mood For Love and an androgynous Human League music video. But I'm still a fan. I mean, what’s there to not like about him? He has a lot of drive for such a young guy (he’s currently in pre-production on his fourth feature), he often works triple duty as actor, director & writer, the musical selection in his work is excellent, he makes hipsters seem appealing & interesting and he does the voice of Stan for French-Canadian South Park episodes.
This time around Xavier Dolan tips his hat to filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar yet the difference here is that the transgendered main character in Laurence Anyways is an actual human being and not a borderline comical shemale caricature like we so often find in Almodovar’s films (c’mon, you know this is true). Not to say that’s always the case but it’s come to a point where people are starting to express cynicism towards transgendered characters in Almodovar's work because they’re so one dimensional and silly (the few Spanish cinephiles I know express more annoyance with Almodovar these days then pride). The same thing could also be said about John Waters at times. I find it interesting that two of the leading voices in LGBT cinema (Almodovar & Waters, both gay like Xavier Dolan) have such a difficult time portraying transgendered & transvestite characters as real people sometimes. Of course it’s not their obligation but let’s be honest, straight directors certainly can’t do it (minus a few exceptions here & there) and up until recently I don't think there's ever been a (prominent) transgendered filmmaker to take on that task and that one prominent transgendered director we all know of now (Lana Wachowski) is more interested in science fiction. It should also be noted that Gus Van Sant, another important figure in LGBT cinema, was the executive producer for Laurence Anyways. Almost two years ago I predicted Van Sant & Dolan would work together in some capacity and look what happened.

In A Year Of 13 Moons (1978)
Paris Is Burning (1991)
Hedwig & The Angry Inch (2001)
XXY (2008)
Even though Laurence Anyways was disappointing overall it still helped to clear that path, started by previous works like In A Year Of 13 Moon, Paris Is Burning & XXY, for future filmmakers to portray transgendered characters as human beings instead of the comic relief or someone to be parodied & poked fun at. Think about it – as serious as something like The Crying Game is (for those that forgot there’s a major subplot involving terrorism and the IRA) the one thing it will always be remembered for is the transgendered character played by Jaye Davidson that’s been parodied and made in to a joke since its release over two decades ago. Are people just not mature enough to handle this type of subject matter? Luckily Xavier Dolan seems to think so and he gives the audience some credit.
His previous work already touched on the complexity of sexuality and sexual identity so I assumed Laurence Anyways would be a masterpiece. I Killed My Mother dealt with teenage sexuality and Heartbeats dealt with a love triangle between a straight woman, a gay man and a metro/borderline androgynous, yet straight, male. Focusing on the blurriness of sexual identity seemed like a natural progression for the young director but he got a lil' too caught up in style.

*Throughout this write-up I’ll be shifting between using “he” & “she” when referencing Laurence because the character does identify as being a male in the beginning*

In Laurence Anyways Melvin Poupaud plays Laurence Alia - A seemingly happy male college professor in a relationship with a beautiful woman ("Fred") who suddenly breaks down on his 30th birthday and confesses that he’s been living a lie all these years and wants to live the rest of his life as a woman. At first Fred doesn't get it and just thinks Laurence is simply coming out as gay but Laurence still wants to be with her. After some initial hesitation on Fred's part they reconcile and make a go at trying to maintain their relationship but Fred finds it too difficult and leaves Laurence only to get back together years later and then leave Laurence again. I understand relationships can he a bit complicated but after a while I found the on-again/off-again relationship between Laurence & Fred to be a little tiresome. They're together, they break up, they're back together again then they break up again (their story spans a decade). Fred does genuinely love Laurence but just finds it too difficult to be in a relationship with someone transgendered.

Laurence Anyways is told from the title character’s perspective but we also get some outside perspective from Fred and the difficulties that come along with trying to be in a relationship with someone who identifies with a gender that you aren’t necessarily attracted too. Suzanne Clement (Fred) gives the standout performance as Laurence's depressed, confused, loving & vulnerable soul mate. Monia Chokri, co-star of Dolan's last film Heartbeats, gives a good supporting role as Fred's supportive yet cynical sister.

Clement hits homerun in this scene...

Laurence faces plenty of prejudices through the course of the film beyond people just staring at her. She gets beat up, her father essentially disowns her (although there was clearly some deeper stuff there prior to Laurence's gender change that the film doesn't really get in to) and there's a scene where Fred stands up for Laurence at a restaurant after a waitress makes things uncomfortable. I still had issues with the Laurence character. This goes back to what I said earlier about her being complex. Yes we're supposed to sympathize for Laurence in her struggle to be identified as a woman but Xavier Dolan makes her a bit of asshole at times. This is something I have yet to hear anyone address. I guess that is a progressive move on Dolan's part. Instead of making Laurence some angelic martyr for the LGBT community he makes her human with many faults. In between her relationship with Fred, Laurence lives with a woman named Charlotte who she treats like shit (probably due to the fact that Laurence is still in love with Fred). In the middle of the film Laurence leaves Charlotte and runs off with Fred and we never hear from her again. It’s almost like Xavier Dolan treated Charlotte the same way Laurence did. She’s just brushed off to the side and we never hear from her again after being unfairly dumped.
Laurence Anyways was also quite long when it didn't really need to be, clocking in at two hours and forty minutes. If the film delved a little deeper in to things like why Laurence identified as a woman or the strained relationship he had with his parents then I wouldn't mind the length but that never really happens. When Laurence confesses to Fred that he wants to live his life as a woman 20-30 minutes in to the movie we (the audience) are kinda put in the same position as Fred. This confession almost comes outta nowhere. It’s like "Huh?! Where is this coming from?" I'm not asking for some cliché flashback of a young Laurence trying on his mothers clothes but there coulda been some insight in to why suddenly in his 30's did he want this dramatic change. There's a quick scene at the beginning of the film where Laurence is looking over the female students in his classroom almost with envy as if he wished he could be them but if that one scene was supposed to convey Laurence's desire to be identified as a woman then that’s pretty weak. At no time in the early part of this film when Laurence still identifies as a man do we get any discomfort or feeling of him putting on a facade besides that one moment.
Xavier Dolan kinda lets his love of nostalgia get in the way. Yes, the large majority of the story takes place between the late 80’s through the 90’s but the film is almost drowned in neon colors, swatch watches, big hair, synthesizers & acid washed jeans. Sometimes it gets to the point where you wanna shout at the screen saying; “I GET IT! WE’RE IN THE 80’S! TONE IT DOWN A LITTLE.” 160 minutes is more than enough time to make a strong coherent film but Xavier Dolan uses up too much time crafting pretty looking isolated moments and sequences instead of one whole film. Laurence Anyways is far from awful or terrible. It just could have been better. Clearly you can see I had a lot to say about it which counts for something. I do see growth & maturity in Dolan, who stayed behind the camera this time minus one super quick cameo, and I still look forward to his next film. I wouldn’t even mind giving this a second chance. Perhaps I was just worn out by the 30+ movies I’d seen at Toronto prior to watching this.


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