Sunday, November 11, 2012

Laurence Anyways

Xavier Dolan stretches out with his third feature, not just in budget and length, but in matching his emotionally high-pitched material with an equally bravura style, and in tackling a subject less frequently seen on screen even than the tortured mother-son relationship of his début éclatant, I Killed My Mother (2009), or the MMF love triangle of Heartbeats (2010). He remains for the first time behind the camera, ceding the demanding lead role to veteran French actor Melvil Poupard (he started aged 9 with Raúl Ruiz) who gives a subtly restrained and highly appealing performance.

Actually, Laurence Alia’s decision to become a woman at age 35 is not the sole subject of the film, and Poupard would be stranded without the excellent foil of Suzanne Clément as girlfriend Fred, for this film is really a portrait of their relationship over the course of ten years. They play wonderfully together, immediately conjuring the special intimacy of a couple’s shared amusements, and the undercurrents in the lovers’ quarrels, when each knows the other so well. Fred takes Laurence’s decision more or less in her stride – her weeping scene with mother and sister is nicely staged to endorse her rebellion – and indeed Dolan presents the various issues involved mostly in the context of the relationship. Laurence is not gay, but Fred is straightforward about wanting to be with a man. Both brave and defiant of the judgment of others, they try to make a go of it, but a blow-up is almost certainly inevitable, at least from a dramatic point of view. It’s set up with nicely oblique layers of causation, and when it comes, Dolan caps it with one of the finest emotional montages in recent memory, all the more so for its brassy use of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Dolan is establishing himself as a film-maker and editor of quite some skill, and here takes on the costume design as well. He deals with the obvious story beats with great neatness, elegance, and understatement, and is a superb stylist, with a terrific eye for color, pattern, and composition – the period art direction ranges from unobtrusively just right, to effectively fetishistic (Fred gets a thrilling ballroom entrance). Dolan also cuts a mean musical interlude; the soundtrack that accompanies these lives is extensive, but is not the only thing element to make the film feel too long (2hr48). The easy pace allows the characters and story to settle in, but various sequences, including the interludes of voiceover from a present-day (1999) interview with Laurence, serve as little more than punctuation and underlining.

Once Laurence has summoned the courage to go into school in her women’s clothes (and braved the film’s second montage of staring faces), she’s off and running, able to weather a barroom beating and unfair dismissal and still hold her head high. Poupard gives Laurence a very appealing combination of sensitivity and self-possession, totally believable not only as a transsexual, but also as a novelist and poet, in some ways the harder task, completely without physical signifiers. He also surprises us several times with Laurence’s facile willingness to lie to Fred.

This is less the laying of ground for discord to come, but an expression of individual will. The way that a pair of strong egos can ultimately undermine their own relationship is an interesting subject, bubbling under here, and there is a structural tension between the focus on Laurence and her change, and the portrait of the couple. Whilst this is not a tub-thumping sex-change movie, that matter is inevitably – by its invisibility in cinema in general – the dominant element, and tips the balance of identification as far as the relationship is concerned, leaving Clément slightly out on an underexploited limb.

Several times throughout the film, despite its length, Dolan skips the obvious scenes for the ones that come after, starting with Laurence’s initial confession, but it is more frequently Fred’s character material that is elided. By way of compensation, she gets several impressively heated scenes elsewhere (a blistering harangue in a diner), and Clément creates a superb portrait of a young woman who thinks she knows her mind, but whose emotions keep murmuring doubts, and who sees her strength and her sense of identity failing despite herself.

There are superb performances in support also, from Heartbeats’ Monia Chokri as Fred’s super-sassy sister, and Nathalie Baye in particular, as Laurence’s take-no-shit mother. More screen time for her would have been very welcome, but as it is, Dolan needs to restrain himself. He is such a superb stylist that that threatens to overpower the film, and certainly some of the flourishes could have been sacrificed for the sake of a tighter story. Perhaps the lyrical slo-mo leaves of the finale are a bit much, but they cap a very nicely pitched scene of jadedness and missed connection; the film’s coda is a complete cheat of a happy ending, but we’ve grown so fond of these characters by now that we let it slide. The issue is raised only near the end of the sadness of living the second half of a woman’s life without having lived the first, and reminds us that there has been a whole psychological side untapped here, but overall the film succeeds in its paradoxical combination of restraint and flourish under Dolan’s confident directorial control, and most of all, through two very appealing and committed central performances.

d/sc/ed Xavier Dolan p Lyse Lafontaine ph Yves Bélanger pd Anne Pritchard cast Melvil Poupard, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Susan Almgren, Yves Jacques
(2012, Can, 168m)
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