‘Wunderkind’ is an underused expression nowadays. It means a wonder child or child prodigy, which is just what
Montreal-born filmmaker Xavier Dolan may be. Before many of us even graduate from university, Dolan had already turned up two critically acclaimed films: J’ai tué ma mere (I Killed My Mother) and Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats), both of which were shown at the Cannes Film Festival. At the ripe age of 23, his third film, Laurence Anyways, scores Dolan a hat trick of excellence.
Written and directed by Dolan, Laurence Anyways tells the story of Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud), a French teacher and writer, who, in his late thirties, tells his girlfriend Fréderique (Suzanne Clément) that he wants to be a woman. The film covers the ten years since Laurence’s confession, and the emotional destruction that Fréderique tries to overcome. It is a self-indulgent romantic melodrama, but it is written and directed with vigor and taste. Running at 159 minutes—that’s long, but then again, it is a melodrama—Laurence Anyways holds nothing back from the viewer. I dare you not to cry when an obnoxious waitress starts asking Laurence about his “look” and Fréderique breaks down, screaming “Have you ever had to buy a wig for your boyfriend?”
The acting, writing and directing are all superb; Suzanne Clément’s performance in particular is sincere and heart wrenching. As Fréderique, you sympathize with her every step of the way, from accepting Laurence’s gut-punching confession, to trying to keep up with him becoming a woman by concealing the moral breakdown gnawing from within. Dolan’s way of storytelling and photographing the film might remind some of Almodovar’s work. The movie is as much directed as it is designed. Some might even deem it too pretentious, but one thing is clear: Dolan knows how to make a film look like a modernist masterpiece. And since when is self-indulgence in moviemaking a bad thing?
Ultimately, Laurence Anyways is about the search for an identity and the endurance of true love. How much of our relationships to the opposite sex is bound by said opposition? What makes a man and what makes a woman? And what is an identity anyway? The movie tiptoes around the importance of being one’s true self, and the poster of the Mona Lisa hanging in Laurence and Fréderique’s bedroom is a ghostly reminder that appearances always conceal something. Whether this something is sex, religion, or whatever else is irrelevant. No one knows who the woman in the picture really is, and there have been rumors that the Mona Lisa is in fact Leonardo da Vinci in drag.
Self-identity remains a mystery. When Fréderique tells Laurence “I want a man,” it is a confession that is as simple as it is complicated and contradictory to all of love’s ethics—that we love the person and not their sex. Like the film itself, love sometimes has only one ultimatum: take it or leave it.