The most difficult thing to conceptualize about marginalization is the fact that, for those forced to exist on the periphery, the exclusion simply doesn’t end: Public space isn’t something one can just waltz through on an off day. One can’t just wait for all of that pervasive bitterness and contempt to blow over; being effectively denied the right to exist in more or less the same manner as everybody else is ceaseless. I doubt if there could ever be a more concise and sophisticated articulation of the daily reality of tacit, permanent ostracism than the sequence which opens Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s achingly beautiful third film: As Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a transgender woman whose transition is at the center of this narrative, walks with hard-earned confidence through streets teeming with onlookers both curious and confused, Dolan’s camera remains pointedly trained on the faces of those who watch, their shared gaze absorbed in tracking shots and close-ups. To stop and actively stare at another (or an Other) presumes a position of privilege that Dolan here sharply criticizes: He gleans that “just” looking is itself an imposition, a reduction of a person—their being, their space, their privacy—to something contained, examined, scrutinized.
Part of what’s brilliant about Laurence Anyways—and part of the reason it successfully obviates didactic preaching—is that it interrogates precisely this sort of ostensibly benign violence, the oppression generated by looking, questioning, or otherwise imposing one’s normality on a person whose apparent difference defines them socially. So while the film is, in a sense, about the difficulty of living as an openly transgender person and the implications of deciding to transition, it isn’t the kind of vaguely problematic Oscar-bait cautionary tale that stresses the threat of physical violence and abuse above all else; there’s as much or more overt joy and acceptance here as there is clear-cut ostracization or bullying, and what pain and suffering there is proves considerably more insidious. What results, appropriately, is both a bracing reminder of the daily pain of marginalization and by far the most compelling “It Gets Better” video ever made: This should be required viewing for anybody whose curiosity about their own gender seems permanently eclipsed by the thought that endeavoring to change it would be practically impossible.
It’s probably inevitable that Laurence Anyways will itself come to be defined by its difference, by a high-concept premise still somehow perceived to be ideologically novel (if I recall correctly, the last major film dealing with this subject even tangentially was Transamerica, so it’s not as though the bar was set high). But Dolan deigns to sidestep banal sensitivity and useless platitudes, opting instead to examine a life, rather than the “issue” as an abstraction, with exceptional depth and rigor. There’s a degree of liberation to the approach: Unmoored from PC pussyfooting, Dolan is free to engage the complications and contradictions that make his story ring true. That the film’s emotional focus strays from the difficulties of Laurence’s transition to the sometimes painful reverberations enveloping those around him suggests that Dolan cares for his characters as people more than as emblems of the issues they embody, which is to say that he never seems unnecessarily eager to make ordinary people into more appealing political heroes. Laurence’s live-in girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement, in a hopefully star-making performance), for instance, is granted the freedom to vocalize her residual suffering as much as her care and support, and the film refuses to regard her lapses into anger and dissent as definitively wrong or cruel. Dolan is smart enough to perceive in bad words and actions the deeper import they betray; his characters are tangles of confused and often baffling thoughts, feelings, and motivations because regular people are, too, and it’s one of his principal virtues as a dramatist that his characters are ultimately as complicated and multifaceted as the issues he unpacks.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.