When Fred (short for Frederique) meets Laurence at work in Montreal, she instinctively knows their relationship — whatever it becomes — will be powerfully transformative. She is intrigued by Laurence’s good looks, charm and directness, as anyone would be encountering a potential new love for the first time. But as the flashback scene near the end of “Laurence Anyways” shows, Fred has no idea the extent of how they and their lives will change during the next 10 years.
It doesn’t even seem clear to Laurence (actor Melvil Poupaud) at the beginning of Xavier Dolan’s refreshingly frank, emotional and stylish film that he’s undergoing a transformation from man to woman. His transgenderism is gradually realized, seeping out during classroom lectures that define “normal” and gender identity and a covetous appreciation of the feminine power exhibited by his female students.
The movie really takes off after its slow start when Laurence can no longer contain the truth of who he is. It comes rushing out like a waterfall while at a car wash with Fred (actress Suzanne Clement), though the audience doesn’t hear it then. Laurence exclaims, “I’m going to die.” (This is one of a couple times when Dolan–who wrote, directed and edited the film–artfully and unexpectedly uses a deluge to symbolize a torrent of emotion.)
With a sophistication belying his years–he’s in his early 20s–Dolan keeps the audience engaged by not force-feeding every detail and plot twist of the story. Viewers often have to wait to learn important developments when a character learns them, which is so unlike many wrapped-and-tied-with-a-bow Hollywood stories.
Dolan’s youth is more evident through his use of music. There are a couple of sequences cleverly reminiscent of music videos of the late ’80s or early ’90s when the story takes place. However, the volume suddenly goes up, like one of those annoying TV commercials, and the effect is more jarring than enlightening and comes across as out of place in what is a thoughtful and provocative film.
It’s the nuanced, honest performances of Clement and Poupaud, depicting raw and realistic situations, that make this very specific experience universally relatable. They beautifully convey that the inner person and the love that’s shared doesn’t change because the exterior has died or changed. In fact, the bond seems to grow stronger for these two as they face a variety of reactions from society: frustration from family members, mocking judgment from strangers, and unquestioning acceptance from others.
The acceptance readily comes where it often does when social mores are challenged — from the young generation. The reaction of Laurence’s students to his showing up to class in women’s wear is priceless, as his confident John Travolta-esque strut in heels (“Saturday Night Fever”) down the school hallway attests.
However, what does change in Fred’s and Laurence’s relationship that makes it nearly impossible to sustain is the shift of balance. Fred seems to disappear during the transition more so than Laurence. The partner whose needs were considered and met before is replaced by Fred the encourager, confidant and model woman for Laurence. This is revealed during Saturday brunch at a diner in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Clement brilliantly conveys a fierce protectiveness and rage that sets them on different courses for awhile.
Audience members will root for them to get back together because they understand one another and have such fun together, though the circumstances of their new lives appear to make it inconceivable how a reunion could work. Still, their love is incomparable. A question for Laurence and Fred may be whether that love is good for either of them. For the audience, the question “Laurence Anyways” presents is whether love alone is enough to be together.
If you have an opportunity, see this film and decide for yourself. For more coverage of the 24th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, go to http://www.mydesert.com/filmfest.
IF YOU GO
What: “Laurence Anyways” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Canadian. 168 minutes.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 4 and 12:30 p.m. Jan. 6. Sold out but standby tickets may be available at the door.
Where: Regal Cinemas Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs.