Staggering Performances Fuel “Laurence Anyways”

Melvil Poupaud stars in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways. Courtesy of Shayne Laverdière/Breaking Glass Pictures.

Melvil Poupaud stars in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways. Courtesy of Shayne Laverdière/Breaking Glass Pictures.

A rather unforgettable moment occurs about a fifth of the way into “Laurence Anyways,” Xavier’s Dolan’s deep-dish exploration of the complex romance between a transsexual and her longtime lover. For the first thirty years of her life, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) has submerged her identity beneath a heterosexual male façade. “He” is deeply in love with his adoring girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément), but he can no longer keep his desired female identity a secret.

A day finally arrives when Laurence (a name that identifies as male and female in French without a single alteration) decides to embrace her femininity in public. She returns to her Montreal school where she teaches a literature class and stands before her students in a gray dress and full make-up. A dramatic hush falls upon the room as students take note of the sudden change that has befallen their instructor. Since Dolan has no qualms with taking as much time as necessary to maximize the impact of each scene, the excruciating silence seems to last an eternity…until one student quietly dares to break the ice by asking a homework-related question. The camera pulls in to Laurence’s face as she flashes a radiant grin of relief.

Moviegoers expecting a detailed portrait of one man’s gender transition (a la “Transamerica”) will feel let down by Dolan’s film, which devotes the majority of its three-hour running time to Laurence’s on-again-off-again relationship with Fred, a woman deeply conflicted between her love for the man and her bewilderment at the woman he aspires to become. Laurence’s sexual identity doesn’t have any impact on her own feelings toward Fred. She remains the same person regardless of what genitalia exists between her legs. With its dizzying mosaic of shifting identities, Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski’s “Cloud Atlas” had more or less the same message as “Laurence Anyways,” and there are times in which Dolan’s picture appears to have been helmed by the operatically audacious trio.

At the mere age of 24, Dolan displays more staggering ambition than nearly all of Hollywood put together. His picture is as sincere as it is symphonic, though it does falter during its most visionary sequences, which attempt to graft abstract symbolism onto otherwise straightforward moments. Consider the awkwardly framed shot of a butterfly emerging from the cocoon of Laurence’s mouth, or the scene when a torrential downpour materializes in Fred’s living room. The water is entirely redundant, not to mention heavy-handed, since Fred’s wallpaper already resembles a rainstorm. Other scenes verge dangerously close to music video territory, such as Fred’s flirty night on the dance floor, and add little to the film’s dramatic texture. Slash a handful of these indulgent, trailer-ready passages, and a near-great two-hour film emerges from the footage.

The best scenes in the picture are the searing altercations between Poupaud and Clément, who deservedly won an Un Certain Regard prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival (the film was also awarded the 2012 Queer Palm). Her volcanic eruption upon being cross-examined by an insensitive waitress during Saturday brunch is as Oscar-worthy a meltdown as any we’re bound to see this year. Much later in the film, Clément makes a series of confessions so wounding and raw that they made me wince in pain. It’s here that Dolan cuts from an extreme close-up of Clément’s tear-streaked face to an exquisitely chilled wide shot of the island where she once again finds herself drenched in solitude. These glimmers of greatness ultimately compensate for the film’s considerable excesses.

With “Laurence Anyways” in theaters, Patrick Wang’s “In the Family” snagging a DVD release, Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” winning the Palme d’Or, DOMA getting struck down and Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade just around the corner, it’s hard not to feel a bit more optimistic about the changing attitudes of society toward people of different orientations. In “Cloud Atlas,” a man dares to break away from the norms of society, causing an outraged elder to claim, “No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.” The young man’s response: “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” And what better trigger than a work of art to create a tidal wave?

“Laurence Anyways” opens Friday, June 28th, in theaters around the country, including South Barrington 30, 175 Studio Drive, South Barrington, IL. I’ll be discussing the film, along with under indie releases, on Vocalo radio’s “The Morning Amp” that morning at 9:30am.

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