It can be one of the most exhilarating sights in cinema: a promising young auteur going for broke. Of course, going for broke can mean risking bankruptcy or blowing your credit, which is what Xavier Dolan comes perilously close to doing in Laurence Anyways. Quebecois director Dolan made a precocious debut, aged 20, as writer-director-star of I Killed My Mother (2009) and won a lot of admirers with his follow-up Les Amours Imaginaires (aka Heartbeats), a slender but elegant and extremely likeable drama about a gay man and a straight woman both suffering agonies over the same boy.
Weighing in at 168 minutes, Laurence Anyways is Dolan's big artistic statement – the cinematic equivalent of the massively over-produced third album by an act whose forte is the stylishly economical single. With a 10-year narrative starting in 1989, it's the story of a transsexual teacher and the woman who loves him; at least, ostensibly it's that. You could just as easily see it as a nightmare look back at the crisis in Canadian couture, knitwear especially, in the 1990s.
Laurence (French actor Melvil Poupaud) is first seen in female guise, in a powder-blue two-piece, striding out of dense smoke. Ten years earlier, he's a schoolteacher and a prize-winning novelist. He and his girlfriend Frédérique, Fred for short (Suzanne Clément) have a cosy, exclusive, passionate thing going; they're never happier than when necking in car washes while compiling lists of Things That Minimise Our Pleasure (it loses in the subtitles). It's highly arguable whether they're a joy to be around.
Before long, Laurence announces that he plans to change sex (it's Laurence Anyways because Laurence is both a male and a female name in French). There's a nice sequence in which he first enters his classroom in a dress, and Dolan just holds on the long, stunned silence – broken when a student asks a mundane question about homework.
But the film turns out to be less about Laurence than about the strain on his relationship with the volatile Fred. Dolan certainly seems more interested in her, for good reason: Poupaud's Laurence comes across as detached and self-absorbed, and in the final stretch, all he seems to do in his new life is lounge around scribbling poetry in short shorts and an unsightly mullet. Most viewers will not warm to Laurence – and I'm not sure that Dolan does either.
Suzanne Clément's insanely full-on Fred, however, is the wildest case I've seen in ages of a director over-indulging his lead actress. Clément, cobalt red hair more ornately coiffed from scene to scene, is seen screaming her head off at a waitress in a diner, making a ludicrously swanky slo-mo entrance at a ball, as if out-performing Laurence at womanliness, and later agonising in a slinky dress at a suburban Christmas party. What a predicament – to be the epitome of femme fatale glam, yet surrounded by people in terrible jumpers.
A peacock director, Dolan can't resist excessive effects, although they sometimes make you gasp – such as when he drenches a suburban lounge with a sudden indoor waterfall. Nor does he seem to have an overall plan for what he's doing, but he does it without the least restraint or embarrassment. He seems very pissed-off that Queer Cinema isn't nearly as queer as it once was, and is intent on resetting the balance.
Laurence Anyways is a spectacular, often grating misfire, but it can't be faulted on playful, pastichey punk enthusiasm. There's arguably more sheer cinema in Laurence Anyways than in any other release this week – even if sheer cinema, much of the time, looks suspiciously like early Nineties MTV.
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