Laurence Anyways is the 23-year-old Canadian Xavier Dolans third film as director and writer. His acclaimed previous films J´ai tué ma mere (I Killed My Mother, 2009) and Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats, 2010) were partly autobiographical and Dolan also acted in them, but this time he follows from behind the camera his two main characters Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément) in an in depth study of their relationship. Laurence is a praised senior lecturer in literature at the University of Montreal who is having a very intense relationship with his girlfriend Fred. They are very much in love until Laurence on his 30th birthday tells Fred that he wants to change sex to become a woman. He says he is trapped in his body and will die if not.
The film is concerned not so much with the transgender process in itself, as with what happens to their relationship and how everyone around Laurence reacts to his decision. Fred loves Laurence very dearly and tries to support him in every way she can, but has trouble coming to terms with his choice. That the transgender discussion as such is not investigated further in Laurence Anyways I find at first a bit disappointing since it would have been interesting to explore our understanding of what constitutes gender, both physically and in a more conceptual way. The ambiguity is emphasized in details like their asexual names, Fred and Laurence (Laurence being a male name in English but more often, though not necessarily, a female name in French).
Many films about the transgender issue deal extensively with the surface and the physical appearance of women. Laurence puts on a bra, lipstick, skirt, blouse and (not so) high heels, but the surface doesn´t, in a rather unconventional way, seem to be that important to him. The first time he wears women’s clothes at work he chooses a rather ordinary skirt and jacket, doesn´t put a lot of makeup on and has no wig on his very short hair. Walking down the corridor he walks like he is used to, avoiding to affect a feminine walk. Fred is the one that is more concerned with appearances. He wears the wig she has picked out for him mostly because he doesn´t want to hurt her feelings. He doesn´t choose any extreme clothes in any way and when he gradually finds his style he looks more like a New Wave rocker in long coats and a little makeup than a hardcore transvestite.
The film takes off in 1989 (the year Dolan was born) and we follow Laurence and Fred for ten years, until 1999. The 1980s and 1990s New Wave aesthetics of the film are emphasized in the soundtrack that begins with Fever Ray’s characteristic sound but also includes The Cure, Visage, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode among others. Dolan often uses his favorite technique, the slow motion. These scenes are very beautiful and work at the same time as an emotional immersion, where we get a chance to feel what the characters feel. In one scene Fred is at an enormous fancy dress party dancing to Visage’s Fade to Grey. We get to hear the whole song as we watch her dance and meet another man, and this extreme subjective perspective makes the scene almost dreamlike, as so often in Dolan’s films. Another of these intense scenes of subjective immersion occurs after the couple has separated and she reads his new poetry for the first time. As she gets very emotional Dolan surreally lets a flow of water pour over her as she sits in the sofa, letting it soak her completely, all in slow motion.
This is first and foremost an epic love story. We follow Laurence and Fred for ten years and almost three hours in the movie theater, but I think it has to take this long for the film to convey in this fashion the depth of their, sometimes impossible, love for each other. Dolan could perhaps have cut some scenes, but at the same time we are taken so deep inside their relationship that Fred and Laurence truly feel familiar to us as we walk out of the movie theater. Nathalie Baye is impressive as Laurence’s mother. He says, during a friendly lunch, that he never saw her as a mother, but a woman. She answers that she never saw him as a son, but a daughter.
Laurence Anyways is also a film as much about Fred and her struggle to accept Laurence’s sex change. He doesn´t change his sexual preferences by and he still loves her more than anything. She is frustrated and says that she wants a man, nothing else. What is a man and what constitutes a gender? I wish that the film had explored this further. She doesn´t know how to support him and she is upset about how the world reacts to his sex change. Sometimes it feels as if their love is stronger than anything else, but at other times that they have moved in different directions. It is not really clear whether the sex change is the main reason for this or if they have simply grown apart. Laurence wants to age as a woman, which is something I find interesting since the aging woman seldom is something we strive for, but rather tries to hide.
Laurence Anyways touches on a lot of interesting gender issues, but Dolan, in the end, chooses instead to take us on a trip through a very intense love story that perhaps says more about us as human beings in general, than about gender identity.
Anna Arnman is a former editor-in-chief of Film International. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.