One of the immediate and lasting perceptions about this film is just how engrossing of a character study it is and how seldom it’s ever about the bigger picture, be it political or civil rights or about the religious implications of non-traditional relationships. Director/writer Xavier Dolan almost makes an overt intention of making the film be about people and not about agendas. At heart, the film is sincere and heartbreaking love story about two souls and their shifting relationship through the years, one which sees them starting out as a heterosexual couple, and then morphing and changing based upon the desire of the transgender woman living as a man, to become the woman she has always been. If Laurence Anyways is any indication, we are witnessing the voice of a filmmaker with distinctive flair and a warm respect and admiration for the development of characterization shown through the messiness of relationships. It’s thus one of the most beautiful movies released in the U.S. in 2013 (2012 in Canada), a glorious and unabashed paean to love stories and the joys, fears, and tears that give them such emotional and humanistic resonance.
Dolan’s story immerses us in the lives of Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) and Frederique Belair (Suzanne Clement), boyfriend and girlfriend who live in Montreal. Their moments together early in the film reveal an unbridled love for each other and a spontaneous and physical affection for the other that is rather infectious to watch. They are almost so giddy it borders on silliness. Throughout the early course of the film, we witness moments where it appears that Laurence has a deep and abiding yearning for femininity and to become feminine in ways that his outward appearance does not project. He confesses to Frederique that he is actually a woman deep-down and desires her love and support to help through the transformation to become a woman. Frederique reluctantly and painfully agrees to support Laurence, but their relationship is strained because of the shifting waves of adjustment. Dolan focuses on their on-again, off-again relationship over the course of many years through Laurence’s transformation, and is largely concerned with the things that all of us must contend with in regards to loving relationships: change, trust, commitment, fear, misunderstandings and all that makes love so gorgeous and often volatile. None of these things are related to sex, per se, as Laurence still wants to be with Frederique even after he has begun the transformation. Dolan asks tougher questions, however, which look more into gender expectations, social conventions, and identity.
If one thing is clear, it is apparent that Dolan is filled with a flashy attitude and an unhinged abide for emotive acting, eye-popping visual sequences, and a deft feel for incorporating resonant soundtrack choices. From the first sequence, it is apparent that Dolan has a definitive heart-on-his-sleeve style, one that is unafraid of seeming carefree with an unbridled cinematic flamboyance. Dolan gets away with it because his perspective is clearly sincere. All the extreme color cues, the slow-motion, the melodramatic pop-songs come across as exhilarating, joyful and emotionally-cued as they are coupled with an understanding and sensitive portrayal of individuals that goes way beyond the superficial. These elements are used to underscore the emotion brought from the actors and from the story. Dolan’s brashness hearkens to Fassbinder and Kubrick; he’s not afraid of these illusions and makes a deliberate intent to recall them. Indeed the use of red and pink neon colors remind me of Fassbinder and the slow-motion and use of music remind me of Kubrick, but Dolan’s sympathy for his characters comes across as far more compassionate than either of those directors would have allowed for. Laurence Anyways is filled with many bravura and memorable setpieces that balloon the running time to 161 minutes, but it’s amazing how often Dolan is able to justify the length. There is a tragic lament for this heartbreaking love story, and the colorful, sometimes endearingly messy sequences add weight to the sincerity of the storytelling, making the story of Laurence and Frederique into something of an epic romance. There’s even one particularly outrageous sequence that has Dolan overlapping slow-motion imagery of Laurence in the rain and Frederique in the shower paired to the most dramatic moment of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony! It requires a certain amount of guts to pull this off without pretension. After I watched this rapturous sequence I knew this film was going to be quite something. I suppose these elements may not work if one does not feel the emotion of the characters. But because I was so immersed, moments like this added an emotional depth that becomes even greater than the sum of the parts.
Of the two lead roles, Suzanne Clement actually has the most memorable performance as she must continually react to the changing landscape of her relationship to Laurence. Her crumbling emotional state is captured by Clement’s raw openness, which is somewhat exemplified by her mass of red-dyed hair. Paupaud must often appear controlled and internalize so much as Laurence struggles for expression and emotional stasis. Remarkably, the film is focused on at least one of them in every scene in the film and they carry it for the length. Yves Belanger’s cinematography is often staggering and overwhelmingly beautiful. I've never seen any of his work before, but I was rather overwhelmed by the beauty of the shots and compositions. Some ideas don’t necessarily add up to anything more than gloriously bizarre moments, like the clothes raining from the sky….but more often than not, the visuals strike key emotional chords. Although I don’t think the film is flawless, it has an engaging and open style that more than makes up for any deficiencies along the way. This is one of the most beautiful and lovely films of 2013; memorable, unique, and as bold and moving as any film made last year.