It's taken him a while, but Canadian wonderboy Xavier Dolan has finally proven he has what it takes to be a fully-fledged filmmaker with this sprawling, hyper-romantic tale of ten years in the life of writer and literature professor Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and film technician Fred (Suzanne Clément). There is, of course, a catch: as the film begins, the ruggedly masculine Laurence confesses to Fred that he wishes to transition to being a woman, a desire he has always had and had kept secret from her; and the story follows the couple's ups and downs, told in flashback as the now female Laurence is interviewed for a book launch.

     But, despite what it may appear, Laurence Anyways isn't a film about transsexuality or what it's like to be a woman trapped in the body of a man. Laurence's sexuality and gender are of no consequence to Mr. Dolan, who prefers to trace the arc of the relationship between Laurence and Fred, twin souls who go through a series of stages challenging what each of them believes and expects about relationships. Fred rallies initially around the bewildering decision but eventually both find themselves floundering, neither able to let go entirely of each other nor to continue living as if nothing had changed.

     That the film runs nearly three hours might suggest at first that the director's stylistic excesses from the disappointing Les Amours imaginaires might have been allowed to run amok, but it's quite the opposite. Though there are still many aesthetic flourishes that go hand in hand with the impeccable choice of 1980s pop hits on the soundtrack, and excess is the key word in several sequences that don't particularly advance the tale (namely Laurence's dalliance with a group of reclusive transvestites), these are all a lot more controlled and put to the service of the tale rather than front and center, in order to tell how two people can grow apart over time. Mr. Dolan's harnessing of style and growing maturity can also be seen in the extraordinary performances that anchor the film.

     Mr. Poupaud, in the title role, fully inhabits Laurence's energy and persona, contributing a measure of passion that suggests this is a perfect meeting of actor and material, to the point it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in the role (originally written for Louis Garrel, who backed out a few weeks before shooting began). Ms. Clément, who'd worked previously with the director in his debut J'ai tué ma mère, gives as good as she gets as the long-suffering Fred, able to zero in instantly on her character's mood swings and rising to the challenge of a film where both actors are almost constantly on screen for its entire length. While Laurence Anyways could still use a trim, the fact that the film holds up brilliantly and that it reveals a filmmaker in greater control and awareness of his powers is enough to confirm that, yes, Xavier Dolan isn't a petulant one-off but a talented director.

Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Susie Almgren

Director, writer and editor: Xavier Dolan
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger (colour)
Music: Noia
Designer: Anne Pritchard
Costumes: Mr. Dolan, François Bateau
Producer: Lyse Lafontaine (Lyla Films and MK2 Productions in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma)
Canada/France, 2012, 167 minutes

Screened: distributor/Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival official competition advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 2 (Lisbon), November 8th 2012


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