Four years after stunning festivalgoers with his teenage debut, I Killed My Mother, Xavier Dolan is still young enough to be considered a wunderkind. (He’s now 24—two years younger than Orson Welles was when he made Citizen Kane.) Yet the Québécois writer-director has also reached that point, three features into his career, when hotshot upstarts begin stretching their legs and thinking big. Twice as long his previous two films, Laurence Anyways plays like Dolan’s Magnolia: a nearly three-hour epic, a melodrama writ large, and blessed with a young man’s ambition. Except instead of spreading his ballooning sentiment among a sprawling cast of characters, Dolan condenses it into a single tumultuous relationship. The sky, meanwhile, rains clothing instead of frogs.
Beginning at the cusp of Y2K, with a parade of prying eyes and an interview that functions as a framing device, Laurence Anyways quickly rewinds back to 1989—the year Dolan was born, and also the year his eponymous protagonist is reborn. A day after turning 30, Montréal schoolteacher Melvil Poupaud drops a bombshell: She’s a woman living in a man’s body, and finally ready to give back the life she’s “stolen” from her true self. Poupaud’s brassy firecracker of a girlfriend (Suzanne Clément) is the first to learn of this seismic sea change, and her shifting reaction—a hurt that shades into anger, then turns to acceptance, before complicating further—is indicative of a film that acknowledges self-discovery as both a liberating and painful process. Clément loves the person, not the gender, but she can no more set aside her desire for “a man’s arms” than Poupaud can suppress the emergence of her true identity. Social pressures play a part, too, with the lovers torn in opposite directions—one toward a life of honesty and hardship, the other toward the secure, comfortable boredom of suburban “normalcy.”
Employing his signature slow-mo sparingly, Dolan places drama over style, meticulously tracing the ups and downs, the ons and offs, of this decade-spanning romance. Some might argue that three hours is excessive for a mere love story—the same criticism was lobbed at this year’s Cannes winner, Blue Is The Warmest Color—but there’s truth in the filmmaker’s overreach. He wastes little of the mammoth running time, aiming to capture each step of his character’s journey: coming out to her lover, mother, and the world, in that order; weathering the prejudices of employers and strangers; falling into new circles and out of old habits. So determined is Dolan to put Laurence through the self-actualization ringer that he sometimes loses track of who she is, beyond a brave embodiment of the transgender experience. Then again, perhaps that’s just Poupaud ceding center stage to his remarkable costar, Clément, who explodes every scene she’s in with the force of her conflicting emotions. In the film’s dynamic highlight, she turns a crowded diner into a pulpit, her fiery sermon informed by a volatile mix of moral outrage, protective instincts, and misplaced rage. For once in a Dolan film, an actor upstages the camera moves. That’s a promising precedent, as well as a hint that artistic adulthood won’t spoil this hotdogging prodigy.