We’re used to seeing Director Xavier Dolan acting in visually visceral tales, such as Martyrs, and directing comparably emotive ones, like I Killed My Mother – gender and sexuality issues are seemingly well-trodden ground for the Canadian-born director, and a path that he will certainly continue to follow.
When Lawrence Anyways flicks up on the cinema screen, the first thing you notice is its apparent age. And the aspect ratio. The whole thing is square. This all makes sense, in a way, as the film spans several decades as we follow Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) over the course of his gender reassignment into the early 2000s– a topic that is dealt with through the application of fantastically sympathetic acting, often-beautiful moments, but hit-and-miss directing.
The film begins with an exploration of the passionate, jocund and fated romantic relationship between Laurence and his director girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement). Laurence works as a university professor by day, and by night smokes marijuana, has sex and makes lists about things that ‘limit his pleasure’ all the while accompanied by his ever-laughing life partner. They’re generally likeable, if a little pretentious at points.
Laurence is evidently dissatisfied with some aspect of his life. A particularly telling scene is where he is delivering a seminar to his class, and he begins to sweat profusely, looking to and from the pretty females seated in front of him. To combat his stress, he attaches paperclips to each of his fingers, and – certainly from a male perspective – we imagine that he is sexually frustrated, entranced with all of the youthful beauty laid out before him. However, we (meaning most definitely ‘I’) are completely incorrect, as his frustration doesn’t stem from a desire to copulate with every pretty thing in front of him, but from the fact that he is unhappy having been born a man. The furtive glances to his students were actually an epiphany that now was the time to change.
When he announces his desire to become a woman to Fred, she is naturally taken aback. Nevertheless, she wants the man she loves to be happy, and becomes supportive, staying with Laurence as best she can, choosing clothes for him to wear and even buying him a wig. Initially, everyone is accepting of Laurence’s decision, and there are some very comforting scenes where he realises that people – after all – don’t mind the fact that he wants to change, and most are reassuring.
It doesn’t take long for stuff to turn sour, though. Laurence’s relationship with his estranged mother (Nathalie Baye) becomes even more strained, and Fred begins to doubt whether or not she can cope with literally and figuratively losing the man she loves. Adding to this, on account of a number of concerns raised by parents, Laurence loses his job, with his employers citing it as an opportunity for him to concentrate on his poetry and prose. Fred becomes pregnant, and unsure of the future, decides to have an abortion, which proves to be the final straw for this stage of their relationship.
When I started watching the film, for some reason I’d got it into my head that it was about ninety minutes long, so by this point I was convinced that it was about to end. In fact, it was just over halfway through. I was tired, but Laurence’s situation had held my attention up until this point, so I decided to continue.
The story continues with Laurence meeting up with like-minded people, Fred getting married and having a kid, and a number of other dramatic circumstances. The relationship between Laurence and Fred never seems to die, and they are always drawn back to one another, with Laurence at one stage essentially stalking her. There’s an almost quantum physical relationship between the two, with spooky action at a distance seeming to occur. No matter what they do, they always end up in one another’s arms. Scenes such as this are displayed in a rather ostentatious way, with a literal waterfall engulfing Fred when she realises that Laurence has been living nearby her nuclear family all the while. Some of these metaphorical scenes are forgivable, but they become a little obvious and nauseating at points.
The most touching scene is undoubtedly when Laurence’s mother admits that she could never accept him as a son, but can as a daughter. And this scene doesn’t employ any fantastical cinematographical techniques – just solid acting and a good script.
Ultimately, Laurence and Fred’s romance is doomed. On the face of it, it’s a film about a man deciding to become a woman and the fact that – at least for the two of them – it can’t work. However, and Laurence alludes to it as much, his desire to change gender has nothing to do with their relationship. In fact, it’s simply about love being untenable. Sex change aside, their relationship would never have worked, and whilst they shared an overwhelming desire to be with one another, it could never have been and they should simply be grateful for what they were able to share.
Dolan’s piece is, in some ways, a sort of dramaturgical epic, but with such a poignant storyline, this perhaps wasn’t necessary. The film, at circa one hundred and sixty minutes, is too long and Dolan should have sacrificed some of the more pretentious metaphors (which are oh-so tempting) for the sake of the socially realistic scenes, which he pulls off well. Directorial choices aside, the cast are top notch, and at no point do we question the determination of Laurence to become that which he desires.