As LAURENCE ANYWAYS is voted one of Canada's top 10 of 2012, Timothy E. RAW declares it a fascinating failure of self-indulgent excess and impressive visual confidence and talks to lead actors Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément.
Sometimes, in order for filmmakers to say something and be heard over the din of journalism's echo box which presumes to have them pegged, they have to scream, albeit artfully.
And sometimes, the most disposable crap (in this case, music video melodrama) makes for the very best art, dependent of course on your definition. As a self-fellating coronation of his own artistry, Laurence Anyways declares writer-director Xavier Dolan the dictionary definition of artiste.
A cultivated boy wonder, gifted beyond his years, the sheath of very admiring notices for Dolan's previous two features How I Killed My Mother and Heartbeatswere hung up on the age at which he made them (19 and 21 respectively). If film critics are nothing more than embittered failed filmmakers, it's hard not to read the backhanded implication of all this congratulatory praise. As far as cinema's commentators were concerned, the little shit wunderkid was due a hubristic fall.
To cut right to the chase, they got their wish and at 168 self-indulgent minutes it's a long fall too. If the young filmmaker's ego has swelled from the international recognition of twice being selected to play at Cannes it's to be expected. But with clout from the Croisette, surely he's now earned the right to fail spectacularly?
With a budget eight times the size of How I Killed My Mother, and a pointedly exterior, widescreen story spanning a decade, the film is first and foremost, a self-aware display of Dolan's talents, as well as an attempt to put to rest discussions of his age and doubts about the depth of his bag of tricks.
After releasing his first two films, Network is once again Dolan's UK distributor but at one time, the story of a male-to-female transsexual coming out to her lover of ten years, courted interest from Peccadillo Pictures, specialist distributor in gay, lesbian and genderqueer cinema. In what would have been a somewhat insincere entry in their catalogue, Dolan's third feature (despite the topical scope and much more extrovert emotionality) can once again be boiled down to self-conscious characters obsessed with self-presentation, not really concerned with making any serious comment on gender identity. Unlike Sabine Bernardi's Romeos, which took great pains to examine how the physicality of such a transition impacts on a relationship and demands an intimacy of complete trust, Laurence is really only interested in the dramatic purpose of using the gender shift as a means of putting an impossible obstacle before a once impervious love. His name may be in the title, but over the luxurious run time, it becomes apparent that the story is far less about Laurence's re-discovery of himself than it is the lover he leaves behind.
It's hard to get around the fact that Mevil Poupaud as Laurence falls far short of cinema's pantheon of best transsexual turns. Where straight actors Jaye Davidson, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rick Okon have transformed themselves before our eyes, Poupaud's defined jawline and build are constant reminders of his masculinity. Arguably miscast, the first time we see him in drag, Poupaud moves in a way that suggests this is his first time too.
Such physical disconnect presents a perfect opportunity to explore the anguish of how hopeless the transition is for the many, not naturally androgynous MTF's, limited and trapped by the skin in which they live, yet disappointingly, the issue is never addressed. For the most part, Laurence ably takes judgement and intolerance in his stride, a vain flamboyant, whose barely concealed smile when he first stands before his class as a woman is not one of bravery or triumph in the face of uncomprehending prejudice, but vanity. In the manner of his creator, Laurence's righting of the world's injustices is an individualistic orgy of self-confidence.
As Laurence finds his identity, co-dependent Fred (Suzanne Clément) loses hers, an impasse that turns her into a melancholy miserabilist unable to quit the man she can no longer have. Her sorrow is expressed through excess: how's an out-of-nowhere waterfall submerging your living room for an emotional outpouring?
Private pains are always paired with the perfect song, a shotgun marriage of new romantic musical anguish, and impeccably tailored outlandish outfits. The scene in which Fred enters a party reviling in the attention of her dramatic fashionista slo-mo arrival, but giving the impression of not having noticed is the greatest Lady GaGa video never made.
Such is the film's visual confidence, that Dolan would have us believe bouts of lazy writing and unnecessary subplots can be buoyed by it, the entire distended enterprise carrying a false air of super sophistication. In the past his fawning replications of Novelle Vauge cool have walked right up to the line of pretentiousness without crossing it, and writing for the site on his last go-for-broke slice of juvenilla, I went so far as to champion him as the reinvigorator of new queer cinema. Crucially, unlike Heartbeats, Laurence has no discernible sense of humour regarding the pompous self-involvement of its characters. Failing that, it often times feels like a parade of mannequins, set to synth pop. Where before you marvelled at the costumes, Dolan's credit this time as "costumer conceptualiser" draws your attention to the beige nothingness beneath the garments.
Over 168 minutes one has plenty of time to ponder the everything and the nothingness of Dolan. How as an auteur, he can be there and not there. Substance completely denoted by his singular style, underneath the surface, there's an enormous white outline of an impassive face.
If I spent much of my time watching the film theorising as to why a good chunk of the emotion on-screen was devoid of feeling, it's because one half of the relationship doesn't work in either conception or execution. Laurence's desire for a sex change feels far too easy and not half as confused or contradictory as it ought to be in light of his longstanding relationship with Fred. The internal dilemma about his sexuality is moot – as is the poetry he writes to articulate it. Because we care not a jot about him or his poetry, we care even less for the rather useless framing device which sees him being interviewed in a hotel lobby about his "art", now critically acclaimed years later, something I'm sure a far more judicious editor would have convinced Dolan (in the absence of yes men praising his prodigal talents) to leave on the cutting room floor.
Laurence only becomes complicated and compelling in the brief scenes he shares with his mother and given the film's length and multiple strands, how is it possible that Nathalie Baye (brilliantly aloof and disinterested) still feels underused? Confiding in his mother, the frankness with which both of them are able to address the fact that they never bonded stings, not because it's a contributing factor to Laurence's present situation but because it's unfortunate collateral damage they can do little more than willingly accept.
Though it's Laurence's story, Dolan is obviously far more interested in Fred, and though she never seems to hold anything back, Suzanne Clément is able to give this uncontrollable lost woman some dynamic shading, even as she's emptying both barrels in keeping with her director's approach. Fred is someone who operates on instinct rather than duty to her past love or the altruistic impulse to help him through a difficult transition. She sabotages herself because she can't be herself without Laurence, and we never once doubt her resolution that no matter what, she'll see this through and find a way to be a part of his life. Like Dolan with the critics, Fred mostly screams to be heard and as she and Laurence spit, gab and tongue their way through their incompatibility, the decibel level of the actors' grandstanding makes it very difficult for others in the cast to play off them.
As Fred's guard dog sister, jealous of the fact that Laurence's sex change gives him increased status as a pariah of society when she can't graduate beyond being the black sheep of her own family, Monia Chokri is the only supporting player able to withstand such amplitude, delivering bitchy putdowns in a manner worthy of Bette Davis. In Heartbeats the fashion sculpted and contained her very buttoned up character, so fittingly, this time around Chokri's getup runs as wild as she does, the actress sporting towering, frizzy faux pas hair that would make eighties mainstay Joan Cusack barf.
Those crimes against hairstyling are important, for though it takes place in the nineties, the specific era is clearly the early "hangover period" in which the previous decade imposes itself on the start of the next; office Christmas party fashions complimented by The Cure, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode on the soundtrack have an undeniably eighties vibe.
The hyper-romanticized halcyon imagining of the dismal "me decade" still visible in the rear-view mirror is not without irony given how self-centred the filmmaking is. And yet, this absurdly glamourized reincarnation of a zeitgeist to which a filmmaker born in 1989 can't properly call his own, is the film's most interesting point of tension. If Dolan knows little of gender disorientation, his cannon's preoccupation for eighties floor fillers and obscure early nineties techno screams decade displacement. In re-animating a time he so desperately wishes he could have experienced first hand, he's self-aware and savvy enough not to make the mistakes of so many period films before him by foregrounding cultural paraphernalia in tableau. Instead period is metaphorically employed, not to recreate but rather, elucidate the question of what it felt like to be alive at that time. Even as characters get lost in Dolan's drooling fetishization of days gone by, the mis en scène has a pulse and never feels static in the way that say, Clint Eastwood's Changeling feels like taxidermy with its choc-a-bloc streets of every variety of period accurate automobile.
Love it or loathe it, Dolan's vibrant, audacious stylisation of this moment in time plugs into an all-or-nothing attitude that verges on self-destructive camp, the very same quality which marks the film out as the kind of full tilt failure you can't take your eyes off.
When Dolan crashes and burns, he burns bright.
Timothy E. RAW talks to lead actors Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément at the 2012 London Film Festival.
Our thanks to Network Distributing for authorising the use of clips from the film.