LAURENCE ANYWAYS proved to be a divisive movie for much of the LFF press crowd, and going into it knowing nothing other than it was a nigh-on three-hour film about a transsexual romance, written and directed by 23-year-old French uber-hipster Xavier Dolan, I was kind of anticipating being firmly on the negative side of the divide.
I do go into everything with an open mind, however, and just as well, as I was totally enraptured by LAURENCE ANYWAYS, which fulfilled just about every criteria I have for a film: not only did it pass the Howard Hawks test (at least three great scenes, no bad ones), but on top of that looks fantastic, is directed brilliantly, has excellent dialogue, and is topped off by two stunning performances and a great soundtrack.
Set at the fag end of the eighties, arty-intellectual couple (he's a professor at a liberal college, she's an assistant film director) Laurence (Mervil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clement) are madly in love and with an apparently bright future together. However, there are signs that things may not all be well with Laurence, and he shocks Fred one day by announcing that he is no longer comfortable living in a man's body. Laurence knows he is likely ending their relationship, but implores her to stay, which at first she does, to the consternation of her friends and family. The film then follows the highs and lows of their relationship as it unfolds over the next decade.
I’ll fully concede that LAURENCE is unlikely to be for everyone – it’s the definition of maximalist film-making. Dolan isn’t shy of throwing everything he has at his disposal at the screen, and thanks to the vastly increased budget for LAURENCE it turns out that’s quite a bit: lavish costumes (Dolan designed the majority of them himself) and sets, extended fantasy sequences, a swooning, pounding soundtrack featuring the likes of The Cure, Moderat, Kim Carnes and (erm) Celine Dion, and of course, that arse-chafening 168m runtime.
But LAURENCE is painting on a broad canvas, and absolutely earns, as it must, the extra time it requests you spend with its story and the characters. Dolan has said that his big inspiration for the film was TITANIC, which actually makes a great deal of sense: this is a truly epic romance, on the scale of which you never see any more, in the lineage of DR ZHIVAGO, OUT OF AFRICA or THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Unlike those films, however, it never feels staid or constipated at any point– every frame is infused with the life and energy that presumably only a sprightly 23-year-old with a few million dollars can generate. And unlike TITANIC, LAURENCE has great dialogue, rattled off with relish by actors who are clearly having the time of their lives.
The central performances are marvelous: Mervil Poupaud is convincing and powerful as the alternately fragile and belligerent Laurence, but it’s Suzanne Clement who really impresses. Not just an audience surrogate who is passively swept along by Laurence's 'journey', Clement’s character breaks your heart at ten-minute intervals,and never feels less than credible in what is a hugely difficult role. Both actors have fantastic chemistry and completely see their relationship at both the level of a passionate affair and as the kind of spiritual co-dependency.
There are some criticisms to make if you're looking – the final 45 minutes are more unfocused than what precedes it, and the recurring use of slow-motion married to electro-pop does get a little bit too Gap-adverty towards the end. But LAURENCE is only Dolan’s third film, which is frankly disgusting: the scale of his ambition here must be truly chastening for most other film-makers. How can you not love someone who looks like the world's most insufferable Dalston hipster, but happily cites the world's uncoolest film - TITANIC - as the biggest inspiration for his magnum opus?
Regardless, LAURENCE ANYWAYS is a movie teeming with the joy of cinematic discovery, and is just a wonderful experience from beginning to end.