Laurence Anyways (2013)

This was originally published in the 2013 Muriels countdown.

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Dir. by Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan’s films only occasionally rise above the level of pastiche. To watch I Killed My MotherHeartbeats or Laurence Anyways (I haven’t yet seen Tom at the Farm) is to spend an hour or two sampling from the still-only-24-year-old’s favorite movies, music, and photographs. That’s a harsh critique, I know, but not an all-together damning one. Dolan is beginning to develop a voice, and already there are hints in his work that it will become something more than just a middlebrow, big-screen instantiation of mashup aesthetics. (Remember when we used to just explain this away as “postmodernism”?)Laurence Anyways is an impressive film and a marked improvement over his earlier work, both in terms of scale and execution. The two main characters, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément), exist outside of the self-contained, semi-autobiographical universe of I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, and Dolan’s move into grand melodrama is both logical (he’s inserted himself, whether we like it or not, into the Sirk-Fassbinder line of queer cinema) and ambitious (I wasn’t expecting a three-hour film so soon).

The challenge when assessing a performance like Clément’s is that Dolan tends to use actors as cogs in the haphazard machinery of his images. As he swings from influence to influence — from Godard to Almodóvar to Alan Ball to MTV-era David Fincher and so on — his characters tend to get lost in the shuffle. Too often they’re forced to adopt new personae for each new visual context and, as a result, it all becomes a bit schizophrenic. Of all of Dolan’s lead performers, Poupaud suffers the most for this, I think. Even after several viewings of Laurence Anyways, I still don’t have a deep sense of Laurence’s psychology. I think I know what Dolan intended, I think I understand the character as he exists on the page, but Poupaud, a fine actor, wanders a bit. I put the blame for this squarely on Dolan, who loses control of the material at key moments. In the frenetic, all-secrets-revealed confrontation between Laurence and Fred, for example, Poupaud simply stares at Clément and then walks away. It’s a screenwriter’s cheat. Dolan settles for ambiguity instead of writing that necessary, difficult, and revealing next line. It reads as a failure of imagination — as if Dolan couldn’t fully understand Laurence in that moment and wanted to get out of the scene as quickly as possible. Problem is, it leaves Poupaud dangling on the hook.

All of which makes Clément’s accomplishment even more impressive. Fred is also an underwritten character with by-the-book motivations, and yet Clément’s performance is so charged, she throws the entire film out of balance. Most viewers, I assume, would describe Laurence Anyways as a film about a man whose decision to come out as a transvestite affects every area of his professional and personal life, most importantly his relationship with Fred. In fact, it’s a film about a woman who has the tragic misfortune of loving the wrong man. Dolan captures this beautifully in one of the film’s publicity stills. It’s a closeup of Fred’s and Laurence’s first embrace when they reunite after being separated for several years. Clément is at the center of the frame, her face buried in Poupaud’s neck. His head is turned away from the camera, so all of our attention is drawn to Clément’s red hair and to her eyes, which are closed. That image is melodrama reduced to its essence. Even Sirk would have approved.

Whether that shift — from this being a film about Laurence to a film about Fred — was intentional or not, I don’t know, but it happens pretty quickly. The first glimpse we get of conflict in their relationship is a scene in a car, when Laurence becomes annoyed by Fred’s spontaneous decision to change their dinner plans and accuses her of driving drunk. Clément powers through with the same silly excitement she had before but there’s a new tension in her jaw. It’s a subtle gesture that communicates palpably the sense that this was not the first time his words had cut her. Later, after a showy scene in which Fred screams at a waitress for patronizing Laurence (this is the clip we would have seen on the Oscars had Clément been nominated), she returns to her apartment, runs a bath, and then suddenly, willfully shuts off the pain. Clément is arresting and heartbreaking in that moment. She turns Fred’s stoicism into a practiced effort, as if she has done this a hundred times before. In the process, Clément embodies Fred’s emotional life and gives her a past.

This ability to express simultaneous and contradictory emotions is what sets Clément apart from other performers in Dolan’s films. She actively resists being just a bauble in his designs, in the same way — and I know this is a strange analogy — Timothy Carey brings a kinetic spontaneity to Kubrick’s otherwise meticulous Paths of Glory. (2013 Muriel winner Matthew McConaughey has a wonderful knack for this as well.) I especially like a moment when Fred drags (no pun intended) her sister into a wig shop, with the intention of surprising Laurence with a gift. The sister character exists in order to express out loud every frustration, doubt, and objection that Fred feels herself but is working so hard to suppress. “Our generation can take this!” Fred says, trying to convince herself it’s true. Clément is so charged by the competing emotions, she begins to bounce on her toes. For a brief second, she even slips out of the tight frame. It’s one of the rare moments in Laurence Anyways that expresses what should always be at the heart of this story: love, recklessness, and potential.