Cinema is bursting at the seams with love stories of all colors and stripes: giddy love, dirty love, forbidden love, and even punch-drunk love have been explored via romances, romantic comedies, and the occasional zom-rom-com (zombie romantic comedy). But while plenty of romantic films succeed at giving the heart string a yank or two, it’s rare to come across a love story that achieves the sense of being truly epic.
Laurence Anyways, the mind-bogglingly impressive third film from gay French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, achieves that epic scope. The tale, predictably, is that of a man named Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) – a lauded poet and literature professor with devoted students and a wildly unpredictable, irrepressibly alive scarlet-haired girlfriend named Fred (Suzanne Clément). Somewhat less predictably, after an operatically intense argument inside a car wash, Laurence breaks down and reveals to Fred that he is actually a woman inside, a secret that has been tormenting him for decades. As he puts it, if he does not start living his truth, “I am going to die.”
For the rest of the sprawling and frequently brilliant nearly 3-hour film, we watch Laurence slowly transition from living as a man to living as a woman. The first steps are unbearably tense: his first appearance at work in women’s clothing; his first talk with his brittle, blunt mother; his first violent encounter in public. Sometimes Fred is at his side, sometimes she is angry and absent, and sometimes she is gone entirely. Over the course of ten years the two lovers drift together and apart as both struggle to reconcile their personal identities and their love for one another.
Laurence is a departure for Dolan, who gained arthouse kudos for his semi-autobiographical gay films I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats. (Fun fact: He is also an actor, and provided the French voiceover for Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies.) Here his primary interest is not sexual identity, but gender identity (though sexuality is of course linked to and impacted by Laurence’s decision to transition from being a heterosexual man to a gay woman). But the film beautifully demonstrates why the T belongs in LGBT: our identities and the freedom to live and love as fully realized persons are fundamental to our survival. Though Laurence and Fred’s journey is unique as it relates to gender, the hurdles of shame, ostracization, and discrimination are all too familiar to queer folk of all walks.
Dolan’s vision of Laurence and Fred’s romance is an exercise in extremes: explosions of color, rage, music, desperation and pure joy punctuate the measured domestic scenes with clockwork precision (my mention of Punch-Drunk Love earlier wasn’t incidental – the films both swing wildly and wonderfully between calm and chaos). Moments of breathtaking beauty and aching hope transform a simple romance into something almost mythic – a love affair that the word itself needs to survive, much like, as Laurence says, “your lungs need air.” Is it self-indulgent at times? Sure – but so is love. And for me, Dolan’s exaggerated tableaus and flights of fancy paid off in spades – I’ll probably never forget a few of this film’s more striking images.
The film also demonstrates the importance of community for LGBT persons as they chart the path of their newly authentic life. Laurence tries to make her new self fit into her existing community, to varying degrees of success. But she also finds considerable comfort in new communities, including a kindly gaggle of old ladies and gay men who call themselves The Five Roses and a rural community where trans people can live undisturbed with their partners. Laurence goes from being celebrated and revered in his own community to being stared and vilified at as though she were a monster, just from a change of clothes and a little makeup. As a viewer, we feel how unfair and painful that is.
Dolan’s real triumph, with the considerable assistant of his excellent leads, is in creating two fully-realized characters living a reality that has never before been explored to this extent in a feature film. It’s impossible not to understand the love that these characters feel for one another, even as they fight, infuriate, and betray one another, and we are invested in their happiness, against considerable odds. Laurence does more than to make us understand the challenges faced by trans people and those who love them – it makes us feel those challenges ourselves.
Laurence Anyways opens in select cities on Friday, June 28th.