REVIEW: Laurence Anyways

18 04 2013

Laurence AnywaysRiverRun International Film Festival

Writing reviews that hinge on an “I like it, but…” are always fun, so here goes my latest.  (And if you want a classic example of this type of review, see my take on Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

Though I haven’t seen any of Xavier Dolan’s previous two films, “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats,” I immensely respect this young wunderkind’s talent.  He is a master of cinematic art at 24, and I cannot wait to see how he pushes the form in the future.  Heck, for all we know, he could be the future of film.

But now is not the future, nor is his third film “Laurence Anyways.”  It shows promises of greatness and hints at a bold, brash masterpiece coming down the pipes.  Dolan, however, falls into plenty of typical early-feature shortcomings with this film – namely, unevenness.

I can imagine it would be a bit intimidating trying to tell Dolan to control his ambitions – after all, he only directed, wrote, and edited this film.  (Oh, and he designed the costumes.)  But he toggles between two totally different styles in “Laurence Anyways,” a pared-down reality and a wildly imaginative impressionism.  The two stand in pretty stark contrast to each other, especially when one abruptly transitions to the other.  I am not saying they can’t coexist peacefully, but the way Dolan does it here just feels sloppy and choppy.

The story he tells, that of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) seeking to become the woman he feels that he is meant to be inside, is certainly interesting and provocative.  Tackling transvestism and transgender issues has been something seldom tackled by filmmakers save perhaps Pedro Almodóvar, and he explores its complications with sensitivity and without a hint of exploitation or disrespect.  At the heart of “Laurence Anyways” is a human story, not an exclusively LGBTQ story, as Laurence struggles with his attractions and repulsions to Fred (Suzanne Clément).  This emphasis on the personal does harm the film a little, however, when it tries to wax political at the close.

I was definitely intimidated by the nearly three hour runtime of “Laurence Anyways” going in, and it wound up being less of an issue than I expected.  I was always caught up in the action of the film; heck, by the end, I felt like I had spent a lifetime with Laurence and Fred.  Their saga spans over a decade, and the film needed to be that long to capture all the micro-level complexities Dolan wanted to portray.

Yet a part of me thinks that for a story of such sprawling breadth, perhaps film was not the correct medium.  The past five years have been an incredible artistic Renaissance for cable television.  Shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are moving beyond episodic plots and into exploring traditionally filmic narratives with aesthetic integrity.  Many still consider television to be a bastard art compared to film, but there really should be no shame in giving a story the room to breathe in a series or mini-series format.

So while there’s plenty to admire in “Laurence Anyways,” I saw plenty of room for improvement as well.  It’s one of those movies where I just cross my fingers and hope it’s a harbinger of better things to come further down the road, not indicative of an upper limit.  B- / 2stars