Laurence Anyways: Cannes Review

Laurence Anyways
Montreal couple take a decade-long rollercoaster ride of love, lust and fluid sexuality.

Montreal auteur Xavier Dolan's stylish gender-bending epic stars Melvil Poupard and Suzanne Clément as a couple that can never quite live either together or apart.

CANNES - For Xavier Dolan, the ambitious boy wonder of operatically overblown Quebecois cinema, life is a series of great hair days. Set in 1990s Montreal, the 23-year-old auteur’s third feature is a sumptuously orchestrated love story about a transsexual man’s decade-long struggle to maintain a passionate romance with his female soulmate in the face of creeping hostility from friends, family and society.

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Showing in Cannes, where it has been inexplicably relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar rather than the main Competition, Laurence Anyways is Dolan’s strongest pitch yet to have himself crowned Canada’s answer to Pedro Almodovar. This sprawling exercise in high camp is maddeningly self-indulgent in places, but also stylish and original enough to merit an Almodovar-style commercial breakthrough.
Starring the French cinema icon Melvil Poupard as Laurence and Suzanne Clément as his lover Frederique, Laurence Anyways is the first of Dolan’s films not to feature the director himself. While the script initially seems intent on exploring the emotional and social costs of transsexuality, it remains oddly vague about Laurence’s surgical transformation and subsequent sex life. Instead, Dolan digresses into a more familiar story about two volatile people who can never quite live either together or apart.

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Laurence Anyways is Dolan’s most emotionally weighty film so far, but sometimes his tender years still betray him. His characters may be nudging middle age, but they apparently share their creator’s adolescent passions for literature, music, flowery self-expression and chain-smoking narcissism. Emotionally remote parents and ignorant restaurant staff deserve only contempt. Scrawling poetry across your lover’s bare flesh is the ultimate romantic statement, rather than a tiresome affectation. And so on.
At almost three hours long, Laurence Anyways commits the rudimentary error of mistaking bigness for greatness. Much extraneous material could easily been excised. Dolan surrounds his leads with excellent supporting characters, including French screen veteran Nathalie Baye as Laurence’s glacially aloof mother and Monia Chokri as Fred’s remorselessly sarcastic sister. But there are jarring caricatures too, notably Laurence’s implausible alternative family of ageing drag queens and burlesque singers, who appear to have stumbled in from a Fellini movie.

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But however undercooked and overstuffed his story may be, Dolan excels as a visual stylist, framing almost every shot like a classic modern art canvas. Rain-slicked streets pulse with hot-pink nightclub neon. Clothes rain from the sky in slow-motion Pop Art blizzards. Every lavish costume and opulent interior appears art-directed to painstaking perfection.
Also, as usual with Dolan, Laurence Anyways is absolutely saturated in music, from chansons to opera, Prokofiev to Celine Dion. Despite the story’s 1990s setting, the director can not resist the allure of 1980s electro-rockers Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. He even orchestrates a pivotal party scene around "We Fade to Grey," an obscure 1980 Euro-hit by the short-lived British cult band Visage.
It has never been easy to take Dolan quite as seriously as he takes himself, but such are the privileges of youth, beauty and precocious talent. Besides, even if the story grates in places, Laurence Anyways is perfectly enjoyable as an immersive orgy of pure sensory pleasure. Plus, of course, everybody has fantastic hair.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18
Production company: Lyla Films, MK2 Productions
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri
Director: Xavier Dolan
Producer: Lyse Lafontaine
Executive producers: Nathaniel Karmitz, Charles Gillibert
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Music: Noia
Sales agent: MK2
Rating TBC, 159 minutes