Canada (2012) Dir. Xavier Dolan
Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) is a thirty-five year old literature teacher and budding author in along term relationship with Frédérique “Fred” Belair (Suzanne Clément), a fiery and gregarious woman. On his birthday Laurence reveals to Fred and his friends that he has been living a lie and wants to change his gender, feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film follows the next ten years of the tumultuous relationship that ensues after this shock announcement.
Xavier Dolan is just twenty-four years old and this is his third film. Normally the director’s age shouldn’t be a factor when reviewing a film but in Dolan’s case it is almost a requirement to ponder on since the emotional depth and maturity of his work belies his young age. Not since Orson Welles has such a prodigious talent hit the movie world but unlike Welles, Dolan is strictly arthouse therefore the one chink in his young armour appears to be his all too frequent lapses into bouts of self indulgence with his filmmaking; the near three hour running time is a testament to that, polarising the opinions of fans and critics alike.
The story is set in the 1990’s where Laurence and Fred lead a loving and carefree life together. Quite where Laurence’s struggle begins is anyone’s guess because he literally starts to behaviour oddly out of nowhere. An early but neat key scene sees Laurence in his class silently freaking out while watching the female students. He strokes the back of his head and we see he has paper clips on his fingers to represent long fingernails.
Finally on his 35th birthday Laurence breaks down and reveals all to Fred, explaining he is dying inside. Initially Fred thinks Laurence is gay and has been lying to her but he insists he just wants to live like a woman. “Everything I love about you, you hate about yourself” is Fred’s poetic reaction. Gradually she comes to support her partner and helps him with his make-up and buys him a wig for the debut of his new look before the kids and his fellow staff at school.
Over the next decade the relationship between Laurence and Fred becomes a tricky one as result of his brave decision, which sees him isolated from some of their friends, family and society alike. Laurence is fired from teaching and labelled a mental case by irate parents, while his mother Julienne (Nathalie Baye) keeps him away from his sick father.
Eventually Fred begins to crack at the persecution Laurence suffers, culminating in a powerfully dramatic and emotional outburst in a small diner after an elderly waitress innocently remarks on Laurence’s unique look. This is just one of the many moments that make up the virtuoso performance from Suzanne Clément as the truly confused one of the couple. Throughout the decade under scrutiny Fred is the one who goes through the greatest change both emotionally and physically, seemingly suffering more than Laurence.
The problem with Dolan’s haphazard narrative is that it is sometimes difficult to accurately divine what his intentions are with this film. Is he standing up for transvestites or is he exposing the effects their proclivities have on their loved ones which they seem to overlook? Is he having a pop at them or just using their flamboyance as an excuse to indulge some of his more esoteric ideas on film? The answer appears to be “all of the above”.
Laurence’s fears and apprehensions of stepping out in public as his “true self” are well documented, and superbly essayed by a daring Melvil Poupaud – as is the reaction he gets from all around him, including the unbridled disgust from uptight friend Stéfie (Monia Chokri). After getting fired he gets beaten up, rejected by Fred and by his own mother but makes friends with a group of eccentrics avant garde performers who accept him as he is.
While a brave and challenging topic to confront, Dolan’s undoing is in the presentation, in which one is lead to assume he couldn’t decide if he was making a high profile drama, a cinema vérité piece or a glorified music video – so he does all three. The film works best in the first style, with some beautifully framed shots, great photography and of course, the superb performances from the cast.
The second has its value in small doses but is used in some awkward situations and creates a sense of claustrophobia and dizziness instead of intimacy with the handheld camera manically shifting about between two characters.
The final approach allows Dolan to explore his most fanciful and extravagant ideas regardless of their relevance to the plot, which is sadly the case, taking things into a surreal direction, such as our beleaguered couple walking in a rainstorm of multi coloured underwear or Fred being engulfed in a cascade of water in her living room while reading Laurence’s book of poetry.
While fantastic to watch, such as Fred’s entrance to a gaudy New Romantics style dinner party, they do reek of indulgence and take up a huge chunk of the film’s excessive running time. If these were trimmed or cut completely, along with the tedious directionless subplot scenes where people just stand around smoking and delivering unconvincingly verbose Eric Rohmer-esque monologues, a good 45 minutes or so would have made for a more comfortable viewing experience.
Length and indulgences aside, Dolan (who makes a very brief cameo appearance) has proven again to be an incredible talent and unique voice in world cinema with Laurence Anyways. The story, script and direction is rife with an intelligence and maturity that only comes with an extensive life experience, and for someone so young this seems too good to be true.
If the restraint could match the ambition then Dolan could deliver a game changing masterpiece before he is thirty, which most directors will spend their lives never achieving. A flawed but nevertheless powerful and engaging film.