Quebec director Xavier Dolan’ admirable but exasperating third feature, Laurence Anyways, follows the love affair of a woman and her transgender partner over the course of the 1990s. At more than two hours and 40 minutes, the film seems intended as a grand opus, but it’s padded with repetitious scenes, music video-style montages and extraneous characters that almost obscure a well-acted drama about two anguished lovers struggling with their own flaws and an unjust society.
Dolan’s penchant for slow-motion camera work starts early: A tall woman, seen from behind, walks through the streets of Montreal in late 1999. A row of faces – hostile, curious, puzzled though never welcoming – stare at her as she drifts by. Shot in an unconventional square frame, with lots of shots down corridors and through doorways, the film has a deliberately boxed-in feel to suggest relationships under pressure.
Flash back a decade, when we meet the attractive couple of Laurence (French actor Melvil Poupaud), a college literature professor and writer, and Fred (Suzanne Clément), his feisty girlfriend who works as an assistant film director. An exclusive club of two, they write poems on each other’s skin, and make lists of “things which minimize our pleasure.” Then, one evening, during his 30th birthday celebration, Laurence tells Fred that he is a woman inside, and can’t hide it anymore.
At first, Fred thinks she can handle it. She encourages him to wear dresses and make-up to his teaching job. (There’s a fine scene of the first time Laurence appears before his class in orange pumps and a form-fitting green suit; the kids are more worried about their assignment than the teacher’s get-up.) Fred discovers she and Laurence are not as exceptional as she thinks, and, after a period of promiscuity (including a lengthy fantasy montage where she swans into a costume ball with all eyes on her), she has a breakdown and decides to leave town.
The unfortunate Laurence gets fired from his teaching job, and beaten up the same day. In an awkward, Fellini-derived sequence, Laurence is rescued by an eccentric lip-synch troupe of older women and drag queens called The Five Roses.
Several years later, Fred is now a married mother living in Trois-Rivières, and Laurence, who has been living abroad, returns home as the author of a successful book of poetry. Still in the process of gender transition, he lives with a beautiful new girlfriend, Charlotte (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau). Yet the new lovers are just place-holders. Laurence secretly sends Fred a copy of his book. She immediately recognizes it as a love letter to her and the floodgates open . After meeting again, they callously dump their partners and run off together to a place called the Isle of Black. Further reconciliations and angry quarrels and revelations follow.
In a contest between passion and pretension, Laurence Anyways reaches a kind of draw. What holds up here isn’t Dolan’s overly decorative filmmaking, but what he gets from his performers. Poupaud is effortlessly persuasive as Laurence, playing the role in a way that suggests femininity without any hint of camp, finding his anger through layers of natural reserve. Clement, as the volatile partner, generates most of the emotional fireworks.
Secondary characters feel added in more for colour than substance. French star Nathalie Baye plays Laurence’s mother with panache, though Laurence’s dysfunctional family subplot adds little. Similarly, as Fred’s skeptical sister, MoniaChokri (who starred in Dolan’s Heartbeats) spends much of her screen time rolling her eyes and issuing acerbic comments.