Laurence Anyways (2012, dir. Xavier Dolan)
Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) is a literature teacher in Montreal who is a long term relationship with Fred (Suzanne Clément). Laurence is also a transgender woman living as a man and has yet to reveal this truth to anyone around her. Laurence and Fred’s relationship is volatile one, and we find it at a high point, but hints show us there have been many ups and downs. When Laurence finally reveals that she wants to begin transitioning, Fred runs but eventually comes back after she’s had some time to process this idea. She encourages Laurence to start dressing in ways she feels comfortable and to take those steps to begin living the life her partner needs. The rest of the film explores the impact this change has on Laurence and Fred’s relationship as well as how Laurence grows and finds support outside his immediate circle.
Xavier Dolan finally stepped away from merely autobiographical work to make a film about an experience he has never had. The result is a film that is ultimately going to turn some people off if they approach it with a certain expectation. Laurence Anyways is not a film about a fully realized transgender woman. It is a film about transition and expectation. It is a film about making compromises when the things we need to survive conflict with the people we love. And while it has “happy ending” it is not the ending a more traditional filmmaker would come to.
At its heart, Laurence Anyways is a highly French film, like all of Dolan’s work. Emotion runs high and big chunks of the film are impressionistic glimpses into the inner thoughts of our characters. A woman sits on a sofa reading a poem, and we see the set engulfed in torrents of water. Laurence and Fred step forth from a house after a critical moment in their relationship and step through a rainfall of clothing. A character hesitates before a doorway, contemplating how their next step will determine the direction of their future and leaves are violently whipped around just beyond the glass letting them know this could be a risky path. Heartbeats was primarily a queer remake of Jules et Jim and, while I’m not an expert in French or queer cinema, I strongly feel Laurence Anyways is taking on tropes of traditional romantic French films and remixing them with this large, crucial idea of transgender identity.
Dolan doesn’t shie from the uncomfortable throughout the film. The first third has a high, positive energy threaded throughout. Once the formal transition begins though we see characters who were accepting in theory start to question how they feel about Laurence. Dolan doesn’t seek to tell a historically factual accounting of a relationship, rather the emotions of a relationship. Once Fred first comes to accept, or think she has accepted, her partner’s choice she ecstatically tells a friend that “Our generation is ready for this! The sky’s the limit!” When you reach the conclusion of the film these words take on a new context and Laurence and Fred’s relationship is not the simple, easy thing that Fred believed.
Laurence is not a perfect representation of a trans person and the film’s lack of actual trans people does feel slightly problematic. Poupaud’s performance, however, feels incredibly honest. The film uses the framing device of Laurence being interviewed 10 years after the start of the film. She explains to the reporter that she had “stealing the life of the woman [she] was meant to be.” Throughout, no matter how other characters react to or try to advise Laurence she staunchly fights to remain true to herself. This doesn’t mean life plays out with sunshine and rainbows, but this central focus keeps her from failing in this larger ideal. Dolan infuses the conclusion with a bittersweet ending. While Laurence has become on the outside the woman she has always been internally, there has been loss along the way. The greatest changes in our life are wrought with pain and loss but, if they lead us to a greater understanding of the truth within ourselves, we will endure.