BFI London Film Festival: Laurence Anyways

Categorised as ART., FILM.

Xavier Dolan is 23 and he’s already directed three films. All have been selected for Cannes, with both I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats winning awards and causing a pretty major stir. His third is Laurence Anyways: a dizzying 160 minute opus that tracks ten years in the lives of the eponymous Laurence—a Québécois teacher who undergoes a sex change—and his/her girlfriend Fred, who must endeavour to come to terms with his transformation. And it may be the most exhilaratingly, beguilingly, apocalyptically stylish thing I’ve ever seen.

Every single Academy ratio frame of Dolan’s genderfuck epic is a thing of beauty. For a start, there’s the costume, based on which East London is about to be completely empty of its current breed of hipsters because they’ll all have moved to mid-90s Montreal, which according to Dolan’s portrayal of it is their kitschy, dip-dyed, gold-chained, oversize ski-jacket wearing spiritual home. The film’s mise-en-scene explodes off the screen with completely ridiculous but scrupulously considered compositions, in which garish outfits clash with over-the-top wallpaper, and neon light bounces off omnipresent shiny surfaces to bathe the whole thing in glorious multicolour.

And then there’s the music. Prokofiev meets The Cure meets Duran Duran meets Modeselektor side-project Moderat on what is surely set to become this year’s Drive in terms of ubiquitous soundtracks, and there’s a similar sense of fundamentalism about its importance to the film. Right from the atmospheric use of Fever Ray in the opening seconds, Dolan frequently slips into music video territory, indulging in numerous sequences of vaguely Wes Anderson-esque slo-mo set against bursts of Brahms or pounding, irresistible retro electro-pop.

Some pretty great performances are needed to make a mark amongst the whirlwind of style, and they’re delivered with aplomb by Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément as the now head-over-heels, now-embattled, on-again off-again central couple (although they’re almost outdone by French doyenne Nathalie Baye: utterly brilliant as Laurence’s dryly unflappable mother).

But the really amazing thing is that the rampant style never overwhelms the characters, never comes across as cool and detached, or seems purposeless. On the contrary, it serves both as an expressionistic embellishment to the narrative, and as the conduit for the film’s visceral, unashamedly heart-on-the-sleeve emotional dimension. Laurence’s sex change and the impact it has on his and the completely unprepared Fred’s lives are naturally never going to make for a tidy tale, and it’s a duly messy, tempestuous, exhausting affair. What Dolan accomplishes stylistically, then, is pretty special: an opulently balls-out confrontational aesthetic that’s nevertheless delicately calibrated to enhance and express emotional depth—like the sublime transition from a jerky, blurry, close-quarters screaming match between Laurence and Fred to the cold, white, rigidly formalist framings of the following morning’s aftermath.

Indeed, it’s the film’s perfect, resolutely non-straight marriage of form and content—its theatricality of style and of substance—that marks it out as the very best kind of queer cinema. Clothes fall from the sky, a butterfly emerges from Laurence’s mouth, a wall of water sheets over Fred: Dolan simply flouts restraint or realism with joyous abandon. His is an exuberant assault on normality, with an aesthetic that screams to be devoured, drunk dry, fucked, bathed in, distilled, concentrated and injected. The lucky audience is the one that gets even slightly as much pleasure from watching Laurence Anyways as he evidently got making it. Magnificent.

Screening times for Laurence Anyways

Read more of our coverage from the BFI London Film Festival.

Tim Rogerson


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