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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.07.12] Canada drama romance

Before you read this review for Laurence Anyways, you should go watch the trailer. I'll wait. OK, done? Good. Because I watched 80+ trailers prior to the festival, and this is the only one that completely blew me away. I honestly think it's one of the best edited trailers I've ever seen. In three minutes you get a complete story, but nothing is spoiled. You get a clear idea of the movie's style and subject matter, whether or not it will be to your taste. You get a thrilling montage of music and imagery. If you're like me, you also get chills.

Add Xavier Dolan's name to the mix, and Laurence Anyways instantly became one of my most anticipated films of 2012. After all, this is the young man who made the amazingly assured I Killed My Mother before he was legally able to drink in the United States. His sophomore effort Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaires) was also excellent, securing his reputation as one of Canada's most promising talents. This kid is no fluke, and regardless of anything that I say in this review, I'm a fan. Previous success aside, however, the most exciting thing about the trailer for Laurence Anyways was that it suggested a maturing filmmaker, branching out from the loosely autobiographical navel-gazing of his earlier work (I use the term "navel-gazing" in the most affectionate way possible) and applying his considerable powers to a more traditional narrative. It is with a heavy heart, then, that I report my experience with Laurence Anyways to be a relative disappointment.

Laurence (Melville Poupaud) is an French professor in his mid-thirties. His girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) works in film production. They have a happy life together in Montreal circa 1989. But there is something eating away at Laurence, something that he has never told anyone before. Simply put: despite his masculine exterior, Laurence is a woman on the inside. And she is no longer content with cross-dressing in secret. She is no longer comfortable with suppressing her feminine personality. And she doesn't care if society is about to throw a bunch of adversity her way. If she doesn't embrace her true identity, she opines in one of many emotional overtures, it will kill her. Fred is not exactly "normal" herself, and is reluctantly supportive at first. She loves Laurence, the man, and can't bear the idea of a life without him. The film portrays these two people as soul-mates, at least as close to soul-mates as it is possible for human beings to be. But unfortunately, their bodies are more tangible than their souls. Fred is not a lesbian, and Laurence is not a man. Will their love be able to survive this fundamental incompatibility? And are they really soul-mates, if they can't realize their true selves when they are together?

This is a great set-up, but I gradually lost patience with Laurence Anyways over the course of its epic 159-minute runtime. The story starts off strong, but gradually accumulates bloat until the whole affair grows stale. I am not exaggerating when I say that a full hour could be cut from this film, without losing anything essential. So where does it all go wrong?

Dolan's signature style actually works against him in many ways this time out. A strong narrative will always support stylistic excess, but it's a thin line between excess and tedium. Much of the film takes place in slow motion montage, a technique that worked like gangbusters in I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats. But somehow, this previously endearing aesthetic now feels like perfume commercial overkill. Many of the scenes felt as if they were only happening because Dolan just really wanted to work some song into the soundtrack. I often walk around listening to my iPod and imagining vague cinematic coolness in slow motion. Laurence Anyways is like 159 minutes of that. There's just too much of a good thing, to the extent that it drains some of the impact from a few of the emotional lynchpin moments of the story. Dolan also serves as costume designer, and it's hard not to roll your eyes at a few of his choices. One scene set in a restaurant suggests that our protagonists color coordinate their sweaters to the wallpaper of their dining establishments before leaving the house. If Wes Anderson doesn't watch it, Dolan is going to sneak up and steal his King of Twee crown. Don't get me wrong, every frame of the film is lush and gorgeous. But I can't hang a movie on my wall.

The aesthetic is not the only thing dragging this film down. My sympathy for Laurence slowly evaporated over the course of this ten-year odyssey. She makes a big character change within the first thirty minutes, but remains stubbornly inflexible to further growth for the rest of the story. Fred comes off slightly better, because she is open to compromise, shows patience and compassion, and wears her emotions on her sleeve. But I suppose she's enabling Laurence's unreasonable demands by behaving in this way. At a certain point, you'll want these characters to run, not walk, from this relationship. I had to ask myself a tough question as I reflected on the movie afterwards. What's so special about Laurence? Transgendered people are still marginalized to this day, but in 1989 Laurence would not be a complete one-off. I mean, Ed Wood was tackling this stuff in 1953! The film uses the framing device of an interview to establish that Laurence is kind of a big deal (for his poetry), but it comes off as more of an expositional tool than something earned by the character.

I've focused on the negative aspects of Laurence Anyways in this review only because I was so impressed with Xavier Dolan's previous films. Overall, I still think that the young filmmaker's third effort tells a powerful story with an important message. I still think Dolan's craftsmanship is impeccable, that he leaves every other 23-year old filmmaker working today in his dust. I will continue to see everything he makes. But this movie is just too fucking long! I'm reminded of a famous tip on editing from Coco Chanel. "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off."

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