The third feature from Montréal writer-director Xavier Dolan is a truly ambitious, truly modern love story and a definite improvement on its predecessor, the facile and overly derivative Heartbeats, but Laurence Anyways’ 168-minute runtime and incessant detours into slow motion florid fantasy at times feel like audacity for audacity’s sake, an emphasis on décor that neglects emotional depth. Because there is a quieter, more impressive sort of audacity at work in Dolan’s approach to notions of self-determination, of gender, sexual preference and sexual identification most especially, that easily rivals and in some way betters the gender-bending philosophical currents running through the equally lengthy, overbearing and similarly long view-taking Cloud Atlas. Precious few films are so broad as Laurence Anyways in their ideas of who we fundamentally are, how we come together and how we drift apart. Likewise, few films meander through the worlds they create with such jejune patience-trying pretension.
With the arrival of his 35th birthday, high school teacher and budding writer Laurence (France’s Melvil Poupaud) decides he’s really a woman and needs to dress the part, at the very least. Understandably, his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) has a hard time with this, yet she’s supportive, encouraging him to don eye shadow and ladies wear when he goes to work. Laurence and Fred have a cocoon-like relationship, a rare level of shared life and experience and sense of fun that precariously resembles codependence. There is some initial giddiness to Laurence’s radical shift in optics, spurred by an even more radical shift in internal self-awareness, yet his personal and professional status quo is undeniably rocked, and the couple’s life quickly gets complicated and imperiled. Thus begins an on-again/off-again love story spanning over ten years and promising to go on for many, many more.
As with Heartbeats, Dolan’s narrative and camerawork overwhelmingly favours the woman; Clément, a tremendously resourceful actor, does the emotional heavy lifting, while Poupand’s Laurence seems mostly pretty, and pretty vacuous, in comparison. There are some truly arresting scenes of relationship meltdown and moving moments of intimacy, but so much of Laurence Anyways, set in a 23-year-old’s idea of the 1980s, feels like music video or perfume ad pastiche. Dolan’s embracing of high style is welcome in theory; in execution it feels like a mish-mash. Best to focus on the hearts beating underneath all the directorial overstatement; it’s in the heart department that Dolan may yet prove to be a genuine wunderkind.