It’s no accident that the undercut sported by Fred (Suzanne Clément), the spiky lifelong love of the titular Lawrence (Melvil Poupaud) in Xavier Dolan’s third feature, is the exact same style being currently peddled by hipster hairdressers the world over. Dolan’s decision to set the lion’s share of Lawrence and Fred’s gender-related relationship travails on the cusp of the nineties seems calculated to coincide with the exact moment that the long-burgeoning revival of that particular decade is hitting. Rather than genuinely meshing with the central narrative of Lawrence’s gender transition and the impact it has on Lawrence, Fred and their relationship however, Dolan’s swooning nineties fetishism too often feels like the main attraction, threatening to overwhelm the story at its core in a wearying barrage of music video aesthetics and magazine spread production design.
Pointedly starting in late eighties Montreal with Lawrence and Fred already a fast-talking, cohabiting unit of cool, the film winds its way through the various stations of Lawrence’s transition to becoming a women, guided as much by the innate drama of the process as by the opportunities for visual showmanship it provides. On the few occasions when these two parallel considerations actually dovetail, the effect can be captivating, Lawrence’s lingering pre-transition appraisal of how the teenage girls he teaches style and carry themselves perhaps the most sparkling example of this. All too often though, Dolan’s perfectly stage-managed musical sequences, fussy framings and self-consciously jerky camera movements bear only the flimsiest of relations to the narrative content they are supposed to be transporting. When Fred heads out to a fancy ball following yet another crisis discussion with Lawrence, the resulting extended musical sequence of overly made up hipsters sashaying in slow motion to Visage’s Fade to Grey seems far more concerned with (empty) spectacle than tapping into Fred’s current state of mind. In similar fashion, any potential emotional or narrative significance that could be afforded to the Roses, Lawrence’s replacement family of suitably fabulous outcasts, is similarly subordinated to their visual presentation, whether it be their perfectly coordinated outfits and home decor or the inevitable leisurely, musically accompanied tracking shot that comprises the seeming majority of their Christmas visit. Although the flamboyant looks of the era are clearly a perfect match for Dolan’s equally ostentatious directorial style, this sacred union has the effect of directing attention away from Lawrence’s plight rather then truly augmenting it.
Yet while Dolan would appear to want to define his talent based on visual grandstanding, it is telling (and somewhat frustrating) that the stronger moments of Lawrence Anyways suggest it might just lie elsewhere. Every time the stylistic bloat threatens to become unbearable, the script, the acting, or the drama intrinsic to the central narrative (and sometimes all three) serves as the necessary corrective, with the increasingly unbearable strain placed on Lawrence and Fred’s relationship, his dismissal from his job and estrangement from his family all rendered in credible and often touching fashion. It’s hardly a coincidence that when Fred unleashes a veritable deluge of ripostes in response to a dumpy waitress’s gently intolerant comments on Lawrence’s appearance, the scene is all the more powerful for the largely unadorned manner in which it is presented. Indeed, it is Suzanne Clément more than anything that is able to reconcile the film’s oft-conflicting desires for visual impact and dramatic heft, the striking physicality and fiery intensity of her performance effortlessly covering both bases at once.
By the time the film drifts into its third hour, Dolan’s more is more approach has begun to leach into the narration too, having Lawrence and Fred reunite at ever greater intervals to diminishing returns, expanding a voiceover from the early stages of the film into an extraneous interview scene framing device and concluding with Lawrence and Fred’s meet-cute initial encounter just to ram home the singularity of their bond one final time. It would seem more than anything that the hyper-precocious Dolan’s reaction to his previous Cannes grooming has been to throw the entire kitchen at the wall (to say nothing of just the sink) in the belief that his admirable, yet overpowering sense of scale and ambition would somehow enable it all to stick. In keeping with his still staggering youth, one can only hope it’s just a phase; when teenage excess gives way to adult restraint, it will be quite something to look forward to.