Near the beginning of the movie Laurence Anyways, the central character (appropriately enough called Laurence; isn’t it nice when that happens) who teaches literature, tells his students, to paraphrase, that Proust writes very long books in which almost nothing happens (which actually is very true), but that Proust’s prose covers up this fact (which actually is just as very true). I think that something like this could also be said of Laurence Anyways, but not quite to the same success as A Remembrance of Things Past, I’m afraid.
Laurence Anyways is a visual stunner. Exploding with pop colors reminiscent of the Crayola crayon mod world of the early sixties; sets crammed with hip, post modern retro furniture and props; and characters often stuffed into costumes of the over the top variety (though the Joan Crawford shoulders Laurence displays at the beginning and end may be a bit much even for being a bit much). It’s all topped off with a camera style that jerks around in that roller coaster approach so popular now, often filming actors from behind, or blocked by something, or their faces partially cut off. It’s like Frederico Fellinni at times (especially in a group of somewhat outrageous women who befriend Laurence), but without the badly dubbed sound.
The movie is directed by that French Canadian cinematic Doogie Houser, Xavier Dolan, whose first film, I Killed My mother, a somewhat autobiographical story about a boy and his mom (but quite different than Psycho, believe me), was a riveting coming of age story. It’s only real fault was that Dolan was still in his nappies (well, a mere 18 years old) when he made it. Talk about rubbing it in.
He next made Heartbeats, which was again a visual feast, but the story was a tad underwhelming. It concerned a gay man and his bestest female friend who are both attracted to the same man, but don’t know if he’s homo or hetero. If the plot sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the TV show Will & Grace had a similar story line. The difference is that those two resolved the conflict in fifteen minutes. Dolan took more than an hour and a half with a plot that never quite convinced. Now with the addition of his new movie, I feel that, at least for me, Dolan is fast becoming more like Tim Burton, James Cameron and Terry Gilliam. Their movies are ravishing to look at, even brilliantly directed perhaps, but a bit more than weak in the writing department.
I have two issues with the plot and structure of Dolan’s film. The basic premise is that Laurence (purse-lipped Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clement--yes, Fred is female, which is suppose to be ironic, I suppose) are deeply in love. Then Laurence lobs the grenade: he’s actually a woman in a man’s body.
At this point, the focus of the story gets more and more wobbly as it can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be about. Is it driven by the difficulties a person in Laurence’s situation goes through and the conflicts that come up in his life because of it, as more than half of the story seems to be? Or is it driven by the plotline of a man and a woman deeply in love, but due to circumstances somewhat beyond their control, will always be some sort of metaphorical ships in the night and never end up together as the finale and the rest of the film suggests?
Because of this uncertainty, the movie feels like it’s constantly bouncing back and forth between these two ideas until it seriously flounders for energy in the second half. At that point, to be honest, I was just waiting for it to be over.
Connected to this is that when it comes to the idea of whether love will conquer all and whether these two people will manage to work past their differences and create a life with each other, there is no suspense. Their love is doomed. Dooooooooomed. And for a very obvious and simple reason: Fred cannot make herself into a lesbian. Laurence can make himself into a woman because that’s what he’s always been. He’s not changing, he’s becoming his true self. But Fred can’t will herself to be attracted to someone of the same sex. It just doesn’t work that way no matter how many tantrums Laurence throws in order to get Fred to.
But there is perhaps an even more serious issue that overshadows those aforementioned. Have you ever been in a coffee shop or restaurant and there’s a couple near by who are just a little too loud, a little too boisterous? They think they’re the most interesting people in the world whereas you, and everybody else in the place, would just wish they’d shut up? That’s what Laurence and Fred are like to me. In fact, when Laurence said he was going to become a woman, all I could think was, well, it’s a better choice than the drama queen you are now.
So not only is the relationship of these two somewhat immature people doomed from the start, I found I didn’t like them or find them interesting enough to want them to end up together. In the end, the only actor who really makes her mark is Nathalie Baye, the wonderful French actress who plays Laurence’s long suffering mother. Her quite approach to interpreting her character is a welcome relief from all the self-centered chaos Laurence brings with him.