Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways (2012) is showing March 18 - April 17, 2017 in the United States.
In a 2012 interview, the great French actor Melvil Poupaud said of his meeting with Canadian wonderboy director Xavier Dolan in Laurence Anyways that it had been one of the great moments in his career. Poupaud had identified four directors that gave him the gift of transformative roles:Raúl Ruiz (in 1983’s City of Pirates, when the actor was only 10), Éric Rohmer (in 1996’s A Summer’s Tale), François Ozon (in 2005’s Time to Leave) and Dolan in what was then only the director’s third feature. Whether the Canadian will go down in history like the revered Ruiz and Rohmer or be more of a hit-and-miss journeyman like Ozon, only the future will be able to tell. But there is no denying that, ever since his revelation in 2009 (at 19) with I Killed My Mother, Dolan, already a successful child actor in his native Québec, has carved a path unlike any other in contemporary cinema; and that his meeting with Poupaud on the set of Laurence Anyways is one of those cases of love at first sight between an actor and a director.
It’s hard to overstate just how much Laurence Anyways is Poupaud’s film as much as it is Dolan’s. It’s all the more remarkable since the actor was a last-minute replacement, cast shortly before shooting began after Louis Garrel (for whom Dolan had written the role) bailed out. Garrel’s loss, our win; it’s unimaginable to think of anyone else inhabiting the role of Laurence, the Montréal writer and literature professor that transitions from man to woman. We meet him first in 1989 as a rugged, masculine man, seducing the androgynous, no-nonsense film technician Fred (Dolan regular Suzanne Clément, giving as good as she gets); we leave her ten years later, already the woman Laurence always knew inside she was. It’s a fearless, all-in performance from an actor who seems to thrive in these challenges. But it’s also the fearless, all-in performance Dolan needed to prove his fearless, all-in filmmaking bona fides; the anchor he needed to show he’s not just a whiz-kid flying by the seat of his pants.
Seen five years after its 2012 release, in the context of an up-and-down, six-film career that has so far climaxed with the Cannes Jury Grand Prize for the rather disappointing It’s Only the End of the World (2016), Laurence Anyways remains his least-known, least-remembered film so far. But it’s also the beacon affirming Xavier Dolan as a filmmaker with a personality, rather than just the brash brat who found himself in the graces of the Cannes programmers and international critics who’ve essentially made his career. (Five of his six films have found berths at Cannes—the exception is Mommy, which premiered at Venice; Laurence Anyways was in Un Certain Regard.) It is, by no means, a perfect film. Its almost three-hour running time could certainly use a trim, and Dolan can’t help occasionally overdoing his cinéma du look pop stylings—but it remains his most mature, heartfelt, thought-through statement: a film that asks the viewer to not take anything at face value, that forces you to look beyond the facade and try to understand why people are the way they are. Not for nothing are its characters androgynously interchangeable in name—both Laurence and Fred could be men or women, they could be in each other’s places.
But this is not—it’s important to point this out—a “problem picture” or a “message film.” Refreshingly, Dolan is not interested in making Laurence a symbol or an archetype; this isn’t a film about a woman fighting society to become who she is, rather about a person becoming herself, and how that decision affects everything around her and especially her relationships. What happens when you change? Nothing can stay the same—and yet both Laurence and Fred want to hold on to each other as unchanging right in the middle of their most dramatic personal upheaval ever.
You’ve come to the wrong film if you’ve come to look for incisive, demonstrative, political filmmaking—the agenda of Laurence Anyways, as indeed of nearly all other Dolan films (almost all of them dealing with family, whether blood or chosen), is purely emotional: that of how to be true to yourself in a society where conformity is the rule. Xavier Dolan is making a point of being true to himself as an artist, and he’s never done it better than in the guise of Melvil Poupaud in Laurence Anyways: an actor revealing all about his director. No wonder Poupaud thought Laurence was a gift.