The third feature by Xavier Dolan is a glorious, sprawling mess which takes in gender, sexuality and finding your place in the world.
Québécois writer/director Xavier Dolan isn’t known for his modesty, nor his lack of ambition. Perhaps that’s why a certain bitterness hung in the air as he presented his third feature in a sidebar slot at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, having once again failed to graduate to the official competition.
At just 23 years of age, he’d have cut an unlikely figure among the septuagenarians of the main selection, but Laurence Anyways – his most ambitious, sprawling, serious film to date – would have fit right in.
French star Melvil Poupaud is the eponymous Laurence, a seemingly well-adjusted Montreal high school teacher who – in the brave new world of the early '90s – outs himself as transgender to his colleagues, family and apprehensive girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément). A seemingly charmed life descends into turmoil as Fred and Laurence’s relationship is pitted against a society still uncomfortable with the grey areas of gender identity.
Grand in scope and rich in emotion, Laurence plays as a rebuttal to the accusations of style-over-substance triviality that dogged Dolan’s first two features. And yet style remains paramount, of course: visually the film puts barely a foot wrong during the 159 minutes that separate its exquisite matte black title card from its searing final image.
But Dolan is equally eager to prove himself as a storyteller, and it’s significant that – for the very first time – he resists the temptation to place himself in front of the camera, instead channeling all of his efforts into transforming Xavier Dolan, enfant terrible, into Xavier Dolan, respected auteur.
In fact, this desperation to impress does Dolan few favours. In what feels like a concerted effort to create the illusion of depth, he packs the film with quiet, contemplative scenes to which he seems unwilling, or perhaps unable, to fully commit.
Soon, both the film and its audience are itching to return to more comfortable territory, namely the world of house parties, haircuts and fluid sexuality he brought so vividly to life in 2010’s Heartbeats. When he does come close to replicating that film’s energy – most notably in a spectacular back-to-school sequence set to deafening Swiss electro – he casts a less-than-flattering light on the surrounding dialogue scenes.
Nonetheless, Dolan’s unshakable belief in the value of his vision wears off on Laurence; for all its plodding and pretension, there’s a palpable sense of emotional honesty that rescues the film from its own wildly scattershot instincts.
Picking holes in such an unashamedly ambitious piece of work is easy (a subplot in which Laurence seeks solace in the company of a group of elderly cabaret singers is particularly mystifying) but ultimately beside the point. Dolan knows he’s pushing his luck, and relishes every second.
The boy wonder takes a shot at the big leagues.
And the game goes to extra time.
Dolan seals the deal. But only just.