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cannes 2012

Xavier Dolan, seen here between actresses Suzanne Clement (L) and Mylene Jampanoi, at the Cannes film festival in Cannes, France, on May 20, 2012.Reuters

Xavier Dolan, the 23-year-old Quebec director who brought Laurence Anyways, his third feature in four years, to the Cannes Film Festival, has said he reads everything about himself. The past few days must have given him whiplash.

France's newspaper of record, Le Monde, gave a rave to Dolan's tale of a painful 11-year relationship between a man (French actor Melvil Poupaud) who becomes a woman, and another woman named Fred (Quebec's Suzanne Clément).

L'Express groaned about the film's length and declared Dolan blinded by his ego. Screen International called the film "alternately absorbing and grating" while The Hollywood Reporter began its generally positive review with a snipey: "For Xavier Dolan, the ambitious boy wonder of operatically overblown Québécois cinema, life is a series of great hair days."

Most viewers of his nearly three-hour-long film will feel a little imposed upon. The acting is strong, the story somewhat repetitive, and the visual set pieces either lovely (brightly coloured clothes tumbling from the sky) or bombastic: slow-motion montages in nightclubs set to pounding pop songs. If it were a dish, Laurence Anyways would be an ice-cream-plus-meringue-plus-whipped cream dessert: too much for a single sitting, though the ingredients are all there.

The preferred adjective for Dolan, "divisive," is, in film terms, a synonym for saleable, and Laurence Anyways is already sold in more than a dozen countries. The film's Montreal producer, Lyse Lafontaine, said a lukewarm response would have been the worst thing for such a film. Neither Terrence Malick nor Lars Von Trier draw unanimity, she said, and "Xavier is in this line."

That's quite a claim, but then, the young director, a former child actor who directs, writes, acts, edits and does costume design, does not suffer from a surfeit of humility. When he got news that he had been accepted into the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Dolan declared he was disappointed he wasn't in the official competition.

When he made his first film, J'ai tué ma mère, while still a teenager, Dolan was ebullient and grateful for the attention. During his second visit to Cannes, for Heartbeats in 2010, he seemed testy and irritable, and later complained about "overcaffeinated journalists" peppering him with questions. When he cancelled interviews with Canada's three largest newspapers last week, I wondered if he was having a prima donna moment.

Later, when I requested an interview through Telefilm Canada, he agreed immediately. Between him finishing a shower, and heading off to a dinner engagement, we met in his suite. (And when it turned out my recorder wasn't turned on, he kept his guests waiting for several minutes more to extend the interview.) In person, he's cordial but all business, occasionally asking for clarification, or asking for the correct English word.

Though Dolan is only 23, Laurence Anyways is a movie that has been gestating for five years. The story was born one night when Dolan was two days into making his first film, riding back to Montreal from a shoot in the country, when a wardrobe assistant told the story of how an old boyfriend had told her one day that he wanted to become a woman. Dolan got his title and the first 30 pages of a script that night.

He talked about working with Poupaud and pushing to make his performance emotionally bigger ("I'm a Latin") and how Clément's character is a "punk, who chases what she wants."

Overall, Dolan seemed at some pains to refute the impression that he's primarily interested in style. I mentioned a surreal scene in which Laurence, at his lowest ebb, is embraced by what The Hollywood Reporter describes as "an implausible alternative family of aging drag queens and burlesque singers who appear to have stumbled in from a Fellini movie."

For Dolan, the scene is dramatically essential: "They arrive in the movie where we're quite depressed, we've been for 25 minutes in the big downer part of the film. We need a break. We need to take our heads out of the water, and these are oxygen. They're funny, they're overdressed. Yes, they're a sort of digression but they serve the story."

All the movie's characters, he says, are part of a panorama of different perspectives on Laurence's metamorphosis: "There's a face in the movie for every position one can have in society: Bourgeois society, burlesque, homosexual, professional, families, older French people. Every character represents a point of view, how they see difference, how they deal with it."

Clément, who plays Fred, and who also appeared in Dolan's first movie, says he has become much more confident with actors in the intervening four years, challenging them to be more creative at every turn, and constantly reinventing on the fly.

A week after shooting on Laurence Anyways was complete, Dolan called Clément back; he had completely reconceived the key sequence in which Laurence first tells Fred that he wants to be a woman. In the first version, he tells her in a restaurant.

"It was boring. It had no rhythm, no structure, no directing. It was bad," says Dolan.

In the sequence that made the final cut, Fred gets off work on a film crew and gets high on cocaine. It's Laurence's birthday, and she impulsively decides to pick him up to go New York for the weekend. They stop at a car wash before the trip.

"He wants to tell her, 'I'm a woman,' " Dolan says. "They're not on the same page at all. She's high. She's screaming, and then they're in the car wash and they're coming clean. He needs this to be finished before the car wash ends. He vomits the information into her face."

When I ask him about his often emphatic use of colours, Dolan shrugs: "Look, they're not that important and not that conscious. Laurence and Fred wear a lot of blue and pink, and then eventually Laurence is only in purple, the fusion of the pink and blue colours we traditionally assign to boys and girls. It's not that elaborate.

"Sure, I'm interested in decoration and design and costumes but what is really important is the acting. Nice set, nice lights, nice dialogue – if the actor sucks, it's nothing. Of course I seek beauty because I'm a film director. ... Yes, I tend to choose colours a bit but they're not the centre of my approach."

I mention a line in the film, in which a journalist interviews Laurence, who is now a woman, and asks her if "looks are still important."

Laurence responds: "Is air important to lungs?"

Would that coincide with Dolan's own views? "Everything anyone says in the movie, somebody had to write it or think about it. I conceived the lines so, yes, it's all part of me," he says. "Whether right or wrong."