Sunday, February 17, 2013

Laurence Longways: Xavier Dolan in transland

Montreal wunderkind director/actor, Xavier Dolan, who had a cult/festival hit at the age of 20 with his initial feature-length film, "Je Tue ma mere" (I killed my mother) is back 3 years later with "Laurence Anyways" an exploration on becoming an outsider and its impact on relationships. Dolan centers the film on 30s-ish academic/poet Laurence and his passionate relationship with Fred(erique), his bipolar filmmaker girlfriend. Starting sometime in the late 80s, their tempestuous, sexy and fun-loving relationship goes on a roller coaster ride when  Laurence, seemingly out of nowhere (to Fred), starts to ID as a woman. Fred, boho as she is, still wants to be in a relationship with a man and is blindsided by the news. Thus begins a 2 hour and 48 minute explosion of alternating music video imagery to 80s/90s tunes and neo-French nouvelle vague intensity as the couple and their families have one argument in spat out Qubecoise French after another.

Xavier Dolan:
Hipper, queerer and more accomplished than thou.

Why Dolan set the piece 20+ years ago is never entirely clear. It may be he wished the subject of being trans to be more transgressive and forbidden in that pre-Internet time, which is curious because it's not as if it's really much better accepted today and, in many ways, he doesn't really seem to understand the context of trans in the 1980s terribly well. Or maybe he just liked the music from that era (think "Fade to Grey" by Visage and you get the picture) and decided to frame his story in that era. Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) goes through a period where he's distracted while teaching class  and sits in a graveyard while listening to his Walkman. Fred (Suzanne Clement) who, prior to the disclosure, seemed hyper and over the top in love with Laurence. This is shown by several (interminable?) scenes of their having fun together, involving Fred spontaneously bursting into snippets of goofy operatic soprano and getting it on together in a carwash. Initially, she is overwhelmed by her boyfriend's gender admission and leaves 'him.' Upon spending a few days with her bourgeois and gauche family, she longs for Laurence and returns. She buys Laurence (in French the name is used for men and women) her first wig and pushes her to present as female while teaching at school. Yes, Laurence is Julia Serano's classic archetype of 'pathetic trans woman' (as opposed to the sexy deceiver trans woman) and appears in one ghastly outfit after another forever trapped in a world of people smirking at her and looking hopelessly out of place.

Clueless, pathetic trans woman, Laurence.

And this is where the film goes kind of haywire, especially for its era. Laurence's first day teaching "en femme" is more of a genderfuck than something anyone trans from that era would do. She wears a too tight women's suit, heels and short skirt and makeup, but makes zero attempt to do anything with her hair... especially bizarre because pre-transition Laurence obsesses over her female student's hair in class. Laurence views the day as "revolutionary." As someone who's been through this experience (and was also a teacher... albeit of children not young adults) I can tell you that political expressions of power are the last thing someone going through this would feel and this struck me as a clear outsider's projection onto Laurence's situation. An objectification of what that achievement/travail would mean.

Laurence's first day at school ensemble... am I passing yet?

And indeed, for all the queer-positive charge of the film, it actually falls back on a lot of old school transsexual film tropes—transition being about selecting clothes (incompetently) and putting on teenage slut makeup. She has one mention of self-loathing at not being able to look in a large mirror. There is virtually no other aspect shown to her transition other than a 1 second reference to being on hormones and having electrolysis (which is usually a huge ordeal for most trans women). No real exploration of her feelings about her body, her facial hair, her head hair, her nose, shoulders, hands, much less penis. And, because a male actor is playing the role, Laurence's looks (other than rather ratty looking extensions) never really progress or evolve past this first day at work. Moreover, Poupaud shows little evolution of Laurence in terms of expressed gender through the decade covered in the film. He shows her awareness as an outsider, but little to nothing about the PTSD or profound experiences one frequently has in transition. Poupaud the guy at the beginning of the film is practically interchangeable with Poupaud playing someone who's been on hormones, gone through many hours of painful electrolysis, and lived as a women (much less a trans woman) for a decade. While he's a clearly a good actor, he seems somewhat miscast for the role and unsure in which direction to take it.

Warning: Possible Spoilers
Eventually, Laurence is laid off by his school administrator while his gay male co-worker, and blousey cis woman teacher buddies remains silent. In another curiously chosen scene, Laurence, just after the firing, is hanging out at a clearly blue collar men's bar (pretty much the last place someone in her situation would go). A Quebecois redneck starts to hassle her, they get in a fight and she wanders the streets dazed with bloodied face. She calls up her sophisticated French mom (played by Natalie Baye, French acting icon from the 60s-70s and favorite of Truffaut) who wants to help "her son" but is afraid of her endlessly-tv-watching hubby's intolerance. At the same time, Fred loses a key job opportunity with a US film company because of her choice of partner and the relationship goes down a dark hole. Fred is disgusted by the lack of sex and being seen as an outsider and stuck with a freak in a relationship, goes dolled up to a big film industry party by herself and hooks up with a slick businessman with whom she starts an affair.

Where are we going with this?

Laurence is found by "The Roses" a queer-dream family of old ladies, queens and young gender variant boychick who live in what looks like a victorian ballroom. It was almost impossible to tell if they were supposed to be trans women (which is where I felt Dolan was kind of going with it) or that this was an older generation of queer/faghag alliance. In any event, you'll either think they're a hoot, a total tired cliche from another era or both. There should be a big, flashing neon sign... Laurence finds her queerness... vous comprenez? Without giving too much more of the plot away, Fred moves to the burbs, gets married, has a kid while Laurence writes her first acclaimed book of poetry and paints a brick pink on Fred's upscale house to remind her of "them." There are several more get-togethers and breakups for the next 90 minutes.

The Roses: everything's a giggle and a swish

The film is, IMO, just too long for it's own good. One 'could-be-cut' scene after another slows and dulls the film. And the visuals, while often beautiful, have a lot of commercial work/music video stamp about them: backlit snow/flower petals/particles floating in the air, a butterfly coming out of Laurence's mouth (butterfly, get the symbolism, get it?), bleak landscapes and a huge cascade of water enveloping the suburbanized Fred as she reads her ex-lovers poetry. It's very pretty but you've seen it before in many car ads. And I'm not even mentioning an oddly chosen scene where guy-in-a-dress Laurence meets a trans man (played by yet another cis male actor) who passes perfectly, has a hot girlfriend and lives in Laurence's dream destination (an isolated Island off the coast of Newfoundland) and recreationally uses opium to numb his boredom.

A pink brick... je me souviens

This isn't to say the film doesn't have it's powerful moments. Best of all is a scene in a working class coffee shop during brunch. An old bag waitress starts making entitled, offensive remarks about Laurence until Fred literally explodes into a amazing soliloquy of outrage which goes on several minutes. You can feel the entire world pushed back during her fiery declaration and it's a truly revolutionary decree of "I'm mad as hell" and a sign of Clement and Dolan's talent. Some of the Rose Family sequences, campy/hokey though the family is, seem right out of "Shortbus" in the queer sisterhood category and the truism, "when your family rejects you, find a new family." There are some interesting exchanges between Laurence (10 years later) and a publishing company pr woman who is interviewing her for her new book. They have a cis/trans dance of entitlement and defensiveness which felt familiar to me in some of my interactions with certain cis women of my own age. Then there is the performance of Suzanne Clement, who is abosolutely brilliant at finding Fred's many shades of crazy and obsession. She carries and, in some ways, takes over the film and often seems to overpower her fellow actors especially Poupaud (which could be an insightful show of character, but sometimes feels as if Fred, not Laurence, is the title character).

10 year on, Laurence is still wearing powder blue
suits specially tailored to make her shoulders look bigger

Is Laurence Anyways (recently aided in finding distribution by Gus Van Sant) a classic of trans/queer cinema? Well, it sure has its moments and images (maybe too many?) It's either a film which has a rather old-fashioned, naive view of what being trans is like or really just doesn't care that much and is using being trans as a chosen cataclysmic event to throw the relationship into chaos and issue revolutionary queer decrees. (**Warning: amateur therapist theory coming**) I kept feeling Dolan views Laurence and Fred as two sides of himself: the outsider queer poet and the tempestuous insane filmmaker, meh. For a 23-year old who's produced three full-length feature films, he has a lot to be proud of, so I can accept some heavy-handed symbolism. It's audacious filmmaking if not always thoughtful about its title character. And I suspect many queer young people Dolan's age will love this film's passion and it will provide their generation's view of what it meant to be trans (for white academics... back in the 80s-90s... anyways). The film, which won a Queer Palme d'Or at Cannes 2012 will be featured at many LGBT film fests in the coming year. You've either been forewarned or tantalized by the prospect.


  1. All true at one level. A nice review. I think its a bit tough, all movie treatments seem problematic in their own way.

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