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Monday 10 April 2017

Review: Laurence Anyways

Posted in: Movies
By Lexie Matheson - 19th November 2014

Laurence Anyways
Produced by Lyla Films & MK2
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Produced by Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz and Lyse Lafontaine
Written by Xavier Dolan
Starring Melvil Poupard & Suzanne Clément
Cinematography by Yves Bélanger
Release date 18May2012at Cannes Film Festival
Country Canada
Language French with English subtitles
Length 161 minutes.


There are far worse ways to spend a soaking-wet Auckland Saturday evening than at the Academy Cinema in Lorne Street with friends sharing an art-house Canadian film sponsored by ‘Laurence, Anyways’, written and directed by precocious, 25 year old gay actor/director/writer Xavier Dolan, was well worth the 2 hours 40 minutes spent with its elegant French-Canadian voices and blunt English sub-titles.

On the surface, ‘Laurence, Anyways’ is a film about Laurence Alia’s transitional journey from heterosexual cis-gendered male to homosexual transgendered female but, on a richer, simpler level, it’s an almost unbearable tale of love gone incredibly, but predictably, wrong.

As a politicised transsexual woman and long-time performing artist I should say from the outset that I have very strong feelings about cis-gendered actors playing transgendered characters. Yes, the best actor should be cast in the role regardless of gender, ethnicity or age and, yes, it is ultimately the director’s decision, but it’s time for the film and television industry to make a serious statement about transgender rights especially since they choose increasingly to coat-tail on our stories and our characters. ‘Laurence, Anyways’ is, in this respect, a perfect example of a wonderful opportunity lost, or at least misplaced, and the film suffers as a result.

The narrative of ‘Laurence, Anyways’ seldom falters despite its somewhat Titanic length – Xavier Dolan has been quoted as saying that Laurence, Anyways’ is his ‘Titanic’and occasionally over-blown, faux-epic pretentions and the characters remain consistent and interesting throughout.

‘Laurence, Anyways’ begins in the late 1980’s and is the decade-long tale of an intolerable love between Fred (Frédérique Belair, played splendidly by the transcendent Suzanne Clément) and Laurence (the delicious Melvil Poupaud), a writer and teacher, who we first meet while she (Laurence) is still closeted, living as a man, and two years into a passionate heterosexual relationship with the unwitting Fred. The passage of the film follows the ups, downs, ins and outs and over-the-tops of this tortured relationship as it stumbles and eventually falls at the hurdle of an incompatible sexual alignment. There’s no shortage of love, affection and mutual attraction but, at the end of a seemingly endless day, Fred, despite her best efforts, just ain’t sexually turned on to girls. There is a separation, a reconnection, some wonderfully exotic French-Canadian characters, a bevy of quétaine campery, a raft of expressionistic imagery, sub-plots aplenty and, holding it all together, Poupaud’s not always entirely convincing transition from male Laurence to female Laurence.

There are some classic moments: on hearing that Laurence wants to transition Fred’s immediate response is to accuse her of being gay – a gay male, in fact. How often does this happen? Almost every time! There’s the first day craziness of transition: turning up to teach her literature class of feisty young adults, Laurence goes the whole hog, dress-wise. Her students are fine with it, but the parents group goes nuts and Laurence finds her employment discontinued in one of the finest scenes of the film.

Fred comes to terms with Laurence‘s transition and becomes her most ardent – and I mean seriously ardent – advocate in a café scene where Clément calls a spade an absolute and total shovel! There’s the obligatory learning about make-up and wig-styling episode, the coming out to the mother bit, but inevitably it all falls apart and Fred has an affair with a dude named Albert and subsequently leaves Laurence, admitting, in a heart-wrenching scene, that she is in love the other man.

Some years pass, Fred marries her lover Albert (played with delicious subtlety by French-Canadian professional ice hockey player David Savard) and there is a child, Leo, but, in the background there is always the shadow of Laurence who, by now, is living with her new partner, the gorgeous Charlotte (Magalie Lépine-Blondeau).

There’s some classic stalking in and around Fred’s new home in Trois-Rivières, a book of seductive poetry, a clandestine weekend on the evocatively named Isle of Black, naughty Charlotte tells Albert of the affair and, as suddenly as it began, it’s all over.

The story plays out over the next few scenes and we’re told, via some slightly clunky cinematic devices, that Laurence intends to grow old as a woman but ultimately it’s unsatisfying because we romantics love a wet-night happy ending and Xavier Dolan denies us one. Clever Mr Dolan, because there aren’t that many happy endings in trans-relationship world.

He does give us some superb performances however, and without doubt the best are from the sublimely talented Suzanne Clément as Fred and the fabulous Nathalie Baye as Laurence’s pragmatic mother Julienne. With performances as rich as the fruitiest fruit cake and as exotic as only the French can be, these powerhouse women own the screen for the entire evening. Clément is absolutely complete as Fred, her confusion, anger, resignation, ferocity and ultimate denial of any relationship with Laurence is absolutely convincing. On the other hand, Baye is restrained and her connection with Laurence elusive as they work through the issues relating to coming out to a parent, an already overwrought and impersonal relationship and a father who is too fragile to even be told.

In addition – like a sweet bonus - there are splendid performances from Monia Chokri as Fred’s sister Stéfie Belair, Sophie Faucher as Fred’s mother Andrée Belair and Yves Jacques as the empathetic colleague Michel Lafortune.

There are times when the film happily evolves into a paean to womanhood with a somewhat inconsequential side-order of transgender which is, of course, no bad thing emphasising, as it does, the quality of the acting and minimising the potential shallowness of Laurence’s intentionally commonplace journey.

Melvil Poupaud as Laurence is physically beautiful in a very, very masculine way. While this doesn’t detract from his capacity to play a transgender woman – not all of us ‘pass’ or even choose to – there is an intimation of inauthentic playing in his performance of the role. It’s not discomfort, or a lack of integrity, it’s just not quite right. In an interview with François Ozon, who directed Poupard in ‘Time to Leave’, the story of a gay man living with HIV, Ozon said ‘I've always liked Melvil's rather distant presence on screen, especially in Rohmer's Conte d'Eté (A Summer's Tale)’ and it must be said that he has retained this quality in ‘Laurence, Anyways’ and not always to the benefit of the work. (2)

Mostly it’s effective but there are times when this sense of detachment makes it difficult to relate to the writer’s intention that this is Laurence’s story. When interviewed by Brian Formo for the Huffington Posts, Poulard said that he was ‘surprised’ by his transformative role. He continued ‘when I first put on the dresses I was very comfortable. It was just another costume ... The weird thing was the looks from other people around me: the extras, people on the street looking at me in a weird way with angry looks or making me feel uncomfortable, even though I wasn't uncomfortable. Some looks were aggressive. Guys would look at my ass in an aggressive way. Some guys who were very macho, with big muscles and tattoos, I think they looked more ridiculous than me, because they were overacting their masculinity.’ (1)

I must say, as a transgender woman, that I’m surprised that he would be surprised by any of that. However, this stated incredulity does imply that, while the script is taut, the performances uniformly good and the cinematography superior, the whole lacks a legitimacy that more research might have avoided. Poulard is an admirable actor as is demonstrated by his credentials – he has worked under directors Jacques Doillon, Eric Rohmer, the Wachowski’s and François Ozon and alongside actors of the class of Jeanne Moreau and Parker Posey – nor is he the first cis-gendered actor to come up somewhat short playing a transgender woman. However, his female Laurence remains, at times, sadly lightweight and somewhat transparent. It could be the director’s fixation on the cis-gender female roles or the actors lack of nous when it comes to transgender women but, either way, at key times the connection doesn’t quite happen though, when it falls short, it does so in a very classy way.

Then there’s the minor issue of the gendered names which I simply couldn’t fathom. ‘Fred’, often gendered towards the male, and ‘Laurence’ both before and after transition, were clearly chosen for a reason but it’s a reason that has escaped me unless it’s simply a choice to make a point. If so, it’s a big choice to score a small point because we’re stuck with it for the entire 160 minutes.

It could also, simply, be lost in translation.

Suzanne Clément says of Fred, ‘(She) is in shock. Laurence has changed his sexual identity, he changed the identity of the couple. They are each other’s prisoners. Fred and Laurence no longer exist. Fred is lost, a lost woman looking for her identity.’

She’s right, of course. Laurence is now a woman who loves women, but that’s not the issue purportedly at the heart of the film. If Clément is referring to Laurence’s changing gender, it’s her gender identity that’s changed, not her sexual orientation though that has, on first appearance, changed too. If the issue for Fred is one of Laurence ‘jumping the fence’ then this would have been quite a different movie and Laurence being transgender would have largely been irrelevant.

It must be said in mitigation of my petty quibbles – this is, after all, a very good film – that Clément’s portrayal of Fred Belair has received considerable, and well earned, acclaim. The 2012 Cannes Film Festival saw her receive a ‘Best Actress’ accolade in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category which honours ‘original and different works which seek international recognition’. In addition Clément was nominated ‘Best Actress’ at the Canadian Screen Awards in 2013.

Clément describes director Xavier Dolan as ‘ambitious, intelligent and hyperactive young director’ and she never doubted his talents having worked with him previously on ‘J'ai tué ma mère’ (‘I Killed my Mother’), a 2009 Quebec-based bio-drama about the bonding of a mother and son. ‘He's been an inspiring human being. Xavier showed me how to open the boundaries, to let go of fears, move forward’, she said. ‘It's been a very, very rich relationship for me. I'm really blessed to be a part of it.’ (4)

Perhaps that’s why ‘Laurence, Anyways’ is ultimately an effective, if somewhat indefinable, cinematic journey. The relationship between actor and director is at the core of any successful artistic partnership and it would appear that Xavier Dolan is particularly good at building these. He’s good at plenty of other stuff as well, of course. His script is excellent despite my quibbles and his cinematography (created by Yves Bélanger) is great. Perhaps most unique of all is his capacity to build towering yet poignant visual metaphors that segue in and out of the action.

As Kate Rodger would say ‘four and a half stars!’


1) 'Our Generation Can Take This': An Interview With Xavier Dolan, and the Actors ofLaurence Anyway;; recovered: 17 November, 2014

2) ‘Interview with François Ozon’; ‘; recovered: 17 November, 2014

3) New York Times;; recovered: 17 November, 2014

4) ‘Suzanne Clement on her mysterious character in Xavier Dolan's 'Mommy'; //; recovered: 17 November, 2014

Lexie Matheson - 19th November 2014

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