Quite where Xavier Dolan acquired the talent and ability to create a Cannes-worthy film (it was screened at the prestigious film festival this year) at 23 is beyond me. As such, he’s perhaps a little in common with Girls’ Lena Dunham; what’s more, like the girl of the moment, there’s a admirable stubbornness to Dolan’s work, a sense that he wouldn’t back down in his attempt to create this film he intended. In this instance, he’s attempting to portray the dense, epic relationship of two passionate lovers across a ten-year trajectory (thus, the laborious two-and-a-half hour running time is understandable, if at times regrettable): quite audacious when you consider he’s barely experienced five minutes of adulthood himself. And yet he pulls off the challenge with style, wit and, at times, great helpings of pretentiousness.
Brooding introvert Laurence Alia (played with curious restraint by Melvil Poupaud) is a Montreal-residing intellectual: he’s also a male-to-female transexual, something his female partner, brassy extrovert Fred Belair (played with loveable, vivacious spirit by Suzanne Clement – think Denise Black in Queer As Folk) supports with all her heart – until she later decides she can’t anymore. Thus their lives veer in different directions and they acquire new, hugely significant but ultimately hollow relationships apart from each other…only for their love to pull them back together again years later.
I can’t think of many on-again, off-again romances half this length I could bring myself to sit through, but with Poupaud and Clement’s quirky, colourful and above all kindhearted creations, the investment comes naturally. The overarching gender and sexuality complexities that play out are dealt with gracefully and in a lot of depth – but never for cheap laughs. There are dramatic tantrums (Fred practically flipping a table and screaming like a predatory animal when a waitress in a coffee shop asks one too many invasive questions about Laurence etc.), but in its essence, it’s that sense of two human beings baring their souls in the dead of night in an attempt to truly connect with and understand each other that really shines through.
That said, the stylistic directorial flourishes of Dolan’s resonate almost as deeply as the story. He cuts no corners in recreating a hip, colourful Montreal lazing its way through the 90s; from the old banger cars our protagonists drive to their array of haircuts and DIY dye-jobs; from the slavishly handpicked and achingly cool soundtrack to the look in bystanders’ eyes (suspicious, albeit increasingly more relaxed and freethinking as the years go by): the sum of all parts simply screams 90s. And it’s a joy to go back there, especially in such a fabulous, handsome city, and especially when it’s frequently autumn – cue countless shots of charismatic, chocolate box streets bathed in golden sunlight. Poupaud is probably the film’s highlight though; and for all the profound emotional changes his character undergoes, he always employs a crucial sense of sameness that suggests intelligence and empathy.
Laurence Anyways has many sad moments, but you’ll leave the cinema having drawn three largely positive conclusions. Number one, the 90s were great. Number two, Montreal is amazing. And number three, people are at their best when they’ve the guts to be their true, illuminated selves – and Dolan is an invaluable writer and filmmaker for reminding us of that.