Canadian filmmaker and actor Xavier Dolan has been labeled something of a wunderkind following the release of his films 'I Killed Mother' in 2009 and 'Heartbeats' in 2010, at the ripe old age of 20 and 21, respectively. In 2012, Dolan released his third and possibly most ambitious feature film with 'Laurence Anyways,' the story of a decade long romance between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a transgendered woman and Frédérique (Suzanne Clément), the woman with whom Laurence had been in a relationship while still identifying as a man.
Showy, sentimental and occasionally gauche, the film may be considered Dolan's most ambitious not only because of its scope and (supposed) focus on a topic with important social ramifications regarding acceptance, the right to privacy and equality, but also because at 161 minutes, it is his lengthiest film (a fact that plays into certain concerns with pacing and story as well). Additionally, 'Laurence Anyways' represents a shift visually in Dolan's approach, as he seems wiling to utilize more aesthetic styles, which, in this particular instance appeared to have been inspired by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wong Kar-Wai, and certainly, a case might be made for Stanley Kubrick also.
The sense of Jeunet being present in Dolan's work is felt most significantly when Laurence is introduced to a group of entertainers who seem to live not merely outside of society, but in a whole other universe altogether. These moments are intended to demonstrate an aspect of Laurence's transition, and their discordant nature helps as the film itself begins to transition into moments of artful surrealism that vacillate between twee and brash.
Dolan's use of somewhat erratic and claustrophobic handheld cinematography during the early stages of the film blends well with the chaotic noise of his actors and the nearly ubiquitous background music. Before his transition, Laurence works as a high school Literature teacher and shares a passionate romance with his firebrand lover Frédérique (Fred) Belair. And despite being seemingly fulfilled in both his work and his domestic life (Laurence wins awards for his teaching and has a book on the way, while he and Fred frequently speak ardently about life, and intellectual and romantic pursuits) Laurence is torn by his need to transition and live as a woman. Interestingly enough, it's not until sometime later that you begin to pick up on the subtextual suggestion of sensory overload in the aforementioned scenes. The chaotic tenor of the moment is the audience's opportunity to experience the inner turmoil being felt by Laurence.
Still, deeper meaning or not, this kind of technique is only effective up to the point that it simply becomes a distraction. And that's where the film falters: Not in its themes or subject matter but in its execution and representation of them, something that could be explained by the director's age and (despite his resume), relative inexperience. Over the course of many years, as Laurence transitions into living as a woman full time (though he maintains a relationship with Fred, and later another woman named Charlotte), the narrative takes the characters through several typical scenarios, without bringing much in the way of new material or perspectives to them. Fred has an unwanted pregnancy; Laurence has an unfortunate run-in with an ignorant man at a bar that doesn't go as expected, but expectedly ends in violence; an overly inquisitive woman at a café winds up being berated by Fred, which leads to a shift in her relationship with Laurence. The film continues to express itself in short bursts or segments of Laurence and Fred's life, depicting events that seem to shape them into the people they will become and demonstrating how they drift in and out of one another's lives, but it does so without ever fully indicating to the audience that it knows why.
Similarly, 'Laurence Anyways' never seems particularly engaged in the larger social aspect of its main character's transition. It only makes surface-level observations regarding the impact it has on her life and relationships and her ability to remain employed. The film is so long and it covers such an large span of time that there is the impression that while Laurence continues to grow and become more comfortable with who she is as a result of her transition that simply depicting it in such a manner is the same as showing the audience what it means to have lived that life. We spend a great deal of time with Laurence, and yet we have no real idea of what it means to become transgendered and to live a life as a transgendered person. The story is fascinating, and at times told in an artful manner, but its presentation ultimately breaks the whole thing down into an overly sentimental romance.
There are times when Dolan would have been better served toning down what can only be thought of as his gut instincts when it comes to filmmaking. These are things that will undoubtedly become more refined and nuanced in him with time, which, hopefully, will also allow for greater expression as a unique filmmaker, rather than an amalgam of those who inspired him. And because of that, as good as it is, it's a shame 'Laurence Anyways' wasn't a film yet to be made by Xavier Dolan.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Laurence Anyway' comes as a two disc set, with the feature film on a single 25GB Blu-ray and the special features on the accompanying DVD. There's no real explanation for why it was done this way, but here we are. There are no previews ahead of the top menu on the disc housing the feature, but the disc itself does contain previews that can be accessed via the top menu.
Shot in a very tight 1.33:1 format, the Blu-ray is presented in an adequate, but not great looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. One can only assume that Dolan framed his picture in such a way to represent the period in which it takes place and, frankly, it is quite effective – there is the sense that you are watching a film that's as old as the director himself, and the period specific music helps in much the same manner.
Still, shot on 35mm, 'Laurence Anyway' looks as though it should have resulted in far more detail, brighter colors and more distinct contrast, but the end result is somewhere just outside the realm of ideal. Occasionally, the picture looks terrific – one scene in particular tracks Fred as she walks through a ball thrown by members of some high-society – and the clarity of the image coupled with the vivid colors and terrific contrast all manage to come together an nearly make you forget the relative mediocrity of the rest of the film.
Early on, there are issues with the contrast; blacks tend to look dull and gray, like a puff of smoke, rather than a representation of the absence of all light. It's seen time and again throughout the picture, and while the viewer will likely get used to the hazy, gray look, it ultimately robs the film of moments that should have really shined. Similarly, in these moments, fine detail tends to be lower than expected, and although there are plenty of moments where facial features, clothing textures and the like all look superb, it's generally during close ups, or in incredibly well-lit spaces (like the aforementioned ball).
Overall, the uneven image isn't a deal breaker; it's just a disappointment. A film that has this much artistry in its presentation deserves to look as good as possible.
Now, although the cover box lists the sound as Dolby Digital 5.1, the film is actually presented in a French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that sounds terrific. From the first scene to the last, 'Laurence Anyways' has the kind of balance between sound elements that you'd expect from the latest mega budgeted Hollywood blockbuster. Dialogue is always crisp and clear, and even if you don't speak French, knowing just which actor is speaking when is no problem whatsoever.
There are few occasions where the sound is actually taxed when dealing with dialogue and atmospheric elements or even sound effects. For the most part, Dolan combines scenes containing heavy dialogue with bits of music – the film features songs from Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Celine Dion and more – but every now and again, the din of a crowded café or bar will resonate from the rear speakers and give the scene a more atmospheric vibe. Generally, though this is a film that relies heavily on its dialogue and sound track and as mentioned above, they both sound terrific. Music really booms when it needs to (especially in the early sequences) and manages to creep across all channels, and even implements a little LFE, now and again.
Overall, the mix isn't actually asked to do a whole lot, but what it is tasked with, it manages to do very well.
'Laurence Anyways' is an important step up in the development of a young and clearly talented filmmaker. However, this film is one that should be viewed not because of the way it handled or even delivers the unique and interesting subject matter it deals with, but because this is a glimpse at a still nascent writer and director who could very well be a major filmmaker years down the line. With its okay picture, terrific sound, and interesting and detailed special features, this one comes recommended.