THE BLOG
11/07/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

AFI Review: Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways

When Laurence Anyways debuted at this year's Cannes Film Festival, director Xavier Dolan was only 23 years old, already with two Cannes debuts under his belt. In this new film, a character opens his mouth and reveals a butterfly, which is, of course, fitting for a film about a man transitioning into a woman, but is also fitting for Dolan: this film finds him only behind the camera, not acting, and collaborating with established actors and crew. Laurence Anyways is also an epic. It is more than two and a half hours long (an hour longer than his previous films), but Dolan maturely handles the material. In the early 1990's Quebec, Laurence (Melvil Poupand) tells his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) that he is "stealing someone's life, the life of the woman I was born to be." The film follows the two characters through a decade of their relationship, together and apart, before his gender transition, during and after. The story hits all the notes that you'd expect: confronting prejudices of friends, family, co-workers and community, fights with men, new relationships, jealousy, etc. What makes this a towering achievement is the realistic portrayals of not just the leads, but everyone they encounter; because Dolan takes the time that he does in this film, their shifts in shades of acceptance ring true, not calculated, and minor characters themselves are given time for their own problems. Dolan isn't politicizing. He's created a community of characters and shows us how one character's outside choice sends ripples throughout the whole circle of who he knows and who he then meets. Laurence Anyways is not a megaphone-shouting totem for a gender revolution. It is decidedly a very real human drama that takes time with conversations, reactions, declarations and outbursts, deftly subtracting a confrontational approach for fully developed characters with engaging personalities and different types of humor. A testament to the performances of Poupand and Clement, spending a decade with Laurence and Fred is both wrenching and a joy. Dolan detractors have lamented that the director is style over substance, but Laurence Anyways is a charted growth for the young Quebecois filmmaker: there is more substance in his story, and indeed even the paperclips placed as fingernails on Laurence's hands than more politicized narratives. Dolan doesn't check his style at the door, though. There is plenty of style. Laurence confesses his desire to change gender in a drive-through car wash, as the water and machine bristles coming down on them; Laurence and Fred take a trip to visit a couple who have stayed together through a gender transition and clothing falls out of the sky, etc. Laurence Anyways is equal parts Rainier Werner Fassbinder in honesty, pace, dialogue and gender and the music videos of Mark Romanek in composition. It is the intersection of substance and style, and if there is a bullhorn announcement made by the film it is two things: "Our generation can take this," and Dolan has arrived.

Laurence Anyways screened Tuesday November 6th at 5 p.m. at the Chinese Theatre screen 3, as part of the AFI Film Festival; register for tickets at AFI.com/afifest