Xavier Dolan cannot remember his age. Is he 24 yet? 23? He’s 23, and his critics never forget it. Having debuted at Cannes to an eight-minute standing ovation for I Killed My Mother (2009), a film he made in his teens and now finds “dilettantish and embarrassing,” the Montreal director is perennially described as either a wunderkind or enfant terrible.
Perhaps that’s why his new film, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, feels so very adult. Following Heartbeats (2010), his portrait of preternaturally sophisticated youth, Laurence Anyways is a daring take on the topics of gender, transsexuality and impossible middle-aged love. Sublime and absurd, with lashings of style and an audacious running time of 165 minutes, it is destined to inspire a deluge of anonymous Internet commentary that takes almost as long to read.
Here, the sprightly, surprisingly funny and nearsighted Dolan sits very close to me to discuss happy memories, his favourite details and those “angry basement bloggers.”
Laurence Anyways begins in 1989, the year you were born. Is that a coincidence?
[laughs] No. It was funny for me to revisit these years through the eyes of adults, the eyes of the characters. I was 21/2 years old when we moved to Longueuil, in the suburbs of Montreal, and I remember it perfectly.
To me, the idea of suburbs …
Don’t match my idea of Montreal. Are your memories colourful? Are they happy?
They are ... I mean, I chose the 1980s and 1990s not because I like costumes and colours, but because I’m nostalgic. I wanted to relive these years, and also, I thought it was interesting to end in 1999 and have the characters say things like, “In 12 years, things will be different and better.”
There was a great moment when [one of the supporting characters] says “it gets better” – um... what was the whole line?
“It gets better, my ass.”
Right. And I laughed, because you were anachronistically making fun of the It Gets Better campaign.
I mean, how much has it changed? How much have we evolved? That’s what we suggest by basing the plot in the 1980s and 1990s.
When Laurence says, “f--- reality, I don’t want to go back to earth,” I thought maybe – if there’s one criticism of your films, it’s that they are unrealistic and overly stylized. I thought maybe this was your retort.
No, I don’t need to respond to peoples’ attacks on, or analysis through my films. Laurence, who says that, is a highly flawed character who casts himself in the role of victim. All the characters are flawed. I don’t know if that’s realistic enough for people.
I loved the dress Fred [Laurence’s girlfriend] wore at the ball, and then it came back again, near the end of the film [on the set of a movie she’d shot years before].
You’re the only person on earth who has noticed that. The movie is filled with little details like that, that very few people, if any, notice. No, I did not direct that ball scene as a treat for my [assumes facetiously poncey accent] “gay thirst for style.” People dream in life. In her head, Fred has been in a nervous breakdown for months, so when the opportunity comes to be sexy, to have fun, to meet new people, she takes that dress in her mind, puts it on and goes to a party where everybody turns around and looks at her. Of course that never happens in reality. So no, my movies are not realistic. They are a vision.
That scene was clearly fantasized.
People who don’t work in [the film] industry never talk about the style. They talk about how they cried or when they laughed or how they felt that it wasn’t long. Of course, people don’t come to tell me bad things, they write it on the Internet.
Oh God, you don’t read things on the Internet, do you?
I read every review. I don’t read anonymous angry basement bloggers. If I do, I’m gonna commit suicide at the Royal York, which is like a double suicide.
I’m interested in what people think, but I’m also irritated by the lack of imaginations. There are many ways you could criticize me for these films, but you [the bloggers] choose to do it in the easy way. You choose to tell me that I’ve got too much style and I’m a young director who emulates other directors and wants to be Wong Kar-Wai’s cosmic twin – What do you want to be?
I want to be myself. I want to do many movies and offer these films the best of my knowledge and the best of my imagination and give them the style and the fashion they deserve. It might be very ordinary style one day, depends on the story. It’s not about me. [Pause.] I’m sweating.
With passion. Is that why you’re not on-screen in Laurence Anyways? Will you act again?
In my next film, yes. It’s a psychological thriller set on a farm in Quebec, with a consenting hostage. I’m the hostage. I’m also working on a series of six [shorter] films, a hexalogue, called Ordinary People, in which I will act. That will be done by 2013, and by 2015 I should be ready to tackle the American beast.
You’re an optimist.
No, I’m determined. [laughs] And now I am the worst; I’m quoting from my own film.