Laurence Anyways is the exhilarating work of a young director who will clearly try almost anything in order to make an impression. Xavier Dolan appears to be testing cinema's capacity to bridge the emotional distance between artist and audience. He wants you to feel what he feels, damn it, intensely and immensely, and his desire for connection and fulfillment as a filmmaker often cannily mirrors his protagonist's own tormented efforts toward self-actualization, both personally and professionally, as a male-to-female transsexual and as a poet and novelist. Dolan follows Laurence (Melvil Poupoud) over a period of about 10 years from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, detailing her struggles to reveal her true identity to her friends and family, particularly longtime girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément), while weathering financial setbacks and pathetically obligatory taunts and humiliations. That's an order tall enough to undo a great many people, and Laurence often finds herself pulling toward Fred for refuge.
Laurence Anyways has the loose, scrappy feel of a movie that's been made on the fly so as to allow an audacious young filmmaker the opportunity to work through ideas that have been storing up within him for a long time. Dolan simultaneously borrows from the French New Wave, the early films of Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar, Paul Thomas Anderson, and, most pointedly, the entire career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The film is a stylistic blow-out of over-saturated colors, which Dolan often heightens even further with intentionally bombastic samplings of opera and kitschy pop songs, as well as extra-slow slow motion. Portions of the film are rigorously stylized, very obviously blocked within an inch of their livelihood, while other moments appear to have been caught in a single take with a handheld camera that wouldn't look out of place in a film by the Dardenne brothers. It's tempting, then, to write Laurence Anyways off as a youthful doodle, a wonderfully indulgent suggestion of greater things to come.
But Dolan's theatrics are ultimately revealed to serve a deeper thematic ambition, as he's fashioned a narrative that initially encourages your complicity with the sorts of prejudices that Laurence and Fred's unorthodox relationship invite: that Laurence might be mentally ill, or at least a tad "off," and that Fred is self-delusional in her conviction that she can remind her lover that he's really a man. We're particularly judgmental of Fred, mostly because it feels, at first, as if Dolan might be regrettably setting her up as an easy punchline meant to encapsulate all of conventional society's ignorance and intolerance. When we first meet Fred, her volume is always pitched at 10, and she strikes us as aggressive and self-absorbed, merely a brief speed bump on Laurence's path to living as she wants and needs to live. But then we see the full-blooded vulnerability underneath Fred's antics, and later the profound emotional bravery.
Laurence Anyways is so moving and romantic because Dolan has the daring to nearly toss off the issue of transsexuality between the couple after a while. He treats Laurence's desire to live as a woman as it would be treated in a perfect world: As no big whoop, and so the problems that remain between Laurence and Fred are the problems of...an everyday couple. In the tradition of Fassbinder, who was in turn inspired by Douglas Sirk, Dolan takes you so deeply into Laurence and Fred's world that you begin to see other, "normal," characters as vicious interlopers. We don't want these outsiders to break the spell these two cast and be denied this unmistakable passion.
Yet that passion, like all agents of anyone's potential happiness, is work; the film doesn't portray love as a birthright in the tradition of most insipidly self-entitled romances. Dolan is as unusually pragmatic about the specifics of a relationship as he is about Laurence's sexuality: It's evident that Laurence and Fred are deeply in love, but they know each other so well, and have fought so many internal wars with one another, that they basically can't even sit down to tea anymore without hurting each other. Laurence and Fred have worn each other out, rubbed one another down to nerves so raw that the lovers' insecurities keep poking out and drawing blood. Dolan uses Laurence's transsexuality as a metaphor without cheapening its practical social implications, as her coming out is an attempt to bridge the gap between how she's seen and how she sees herself, and Dolan understands that this gap, which one certainly doesn't have to be transsexual to contend with, makes connection of any kind difficult.
The two central performances are phenomenal. Poupoud's subtle physicality transcends the kitsch that characterizes the work of too many actors playing transgender roles; as a man he conveys the discomfort of a bug quivering against a corner of a shoebox, but he blossoms into a startlingly beautiful and poised woman who remains aloof and disconcerting. As Fred, Clément exudes a bravura primal intensity that's reminiscent of Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria. You sense these actors reaching out, invigorated by the challenging tonal contortions of this material, willing to try anything to break through the pat barriers of both a standard "issues" film as well as the general limitations of a cinematic romance that normally boils away the exhilarating mystery and pain of love, and Dolan more than honors them. It takes cojones for a filmmaker to chase Fassbinder's ghost, but it takes heart and talent to damn near catch up with it.