Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan might seem combative about age, but what he is most interested in is the differences in generations. A former child actor who began life on set at age five, he's been equally revered and reviled for having his first three films debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival (the first being I Killed My Mother, in 2009, which he directed at the age of 19, followed by Heartbeats in 2010). His newest film, Laurence Anyways, also debuted at Cannes (in 2012), and is finally starting to play in theaters in the U.S. this week.
Being on set at such a young age got Dolan around adults much younger than most, and has perhaps enhanced his ability to write older characters with the nuance and observation of someone much older.
"Being on set as a kid and hearing about sex stories and hearing people swear ... it's a very specific atmosphere." Dolan laughed when I met with him for an interview during the AFI Film Festival, "When you're a kid and you're missing school to enter this world of adrenaline that's so peculiar it changes the way you see things forever. It helped me in studying and looking at adults and dig for psychological information."
Laurence Anyways is an epic love story that chronicles a decade between the moment when Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) tells his girlfriend of two years, Fred (Suzanne Clement) that he wants to become a woman and still be together. The film is more than a trial of their relationship, as Dolan filters this choice from viewpoints across numerous generations of parents and friends, but also different gender and sexual orientations.
If that sounds like a political film, it is not. It is a human film -- and a generational one. Dolan utilizes numerous pop notes. Certain sections feel like a joyful music video, with slow cam and clothes falling out of the sky. Others are scenes that you'd expect -- Laurence is cast out from certain family members and colleagues, is beaten in an alley -- but the strength of the film is that the characters are so well defined and the scope of Laurence's relationships is so large that every note feels true.
There's a scene where Fred goes shopping for a wig for Laurence and tells a friend, "Our generation can take this. We're ready. The sky's the limit!" That scene is set in 1989, Dolan's birth year. Laurence Anyways closes in 1999. The period is an interesting and appropriate choice, set in a decade when society, at large, avoided discussions of gender identity.
"I'm not sure that [their] generation is ready to take this," Dolan says, before emphatically declaring, "I think my generation is ready to take this... A generation can be ready to take something but society is made of various generations, so not every generation is ready ... I think my generation is ready to stop talking about gay marriage because it seems so obvious to us: people of the same sex should just be happy and marry... there are no questions to be asked about the concrete actions that we should take, but some other generations are questioning that."
Suzanne Clement, who won Best Actress in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes (Dolan also won the Queer Palm award for director), said, "Xavier set the movie in the 90's because he wanted it to be a period movie. (Laurence's) choice wasn't tolerated then and you can still see that apparent nowadays."
Poupaud told me that he was "surprised" by his transformative role, "because when I first put on the dresses I was very comfortable. It was just another costume... The weird thing was the looks from other people around me: the extras, people on the street looking at me in a weird way with angry looks or making me feel uncomfortable, even though I wasn't uncomfortable. Some looks were aggressive. Guys would look at my ass in an aggressive way. Some guys who were very macho, with big muscles and tattoos, I think they looked more ridiculous than me, because they were overacting their masculinity. You can see that in the movie. . (Laurence) is very focused on what he wants and he's studied and everyone around him becomes more crazy or reveal themselves as cowards or mean people."
Poupaud was originally cast in the smaller role of a transgender who stayed in a coupling with his female partner. Louis Garrel, from The Dreamers was originally cast as Laurence but Dolan thought that a younger actor could make the story suffer. Poupaud became Laurence two weeks prior to filming.
"If Laurence was 25 or 30, (the film) wouldn't have been as thoughtful," Poupaud says. "But as I am 40, I think it's deeper and more mature. He's stronger. If he'd been younger, audiences would be like, 'ah, poor kid.' You might pity him. But I think in this film, you don't pity him. He's a hero or heroine, and a strong and courageous man."
In an interview with Slant Magazine, Dolan stated that he wanted this film to be his Titanic. Although, that might sound cheeky or ironic, he is very genuine about it. You can draw parallels (outside of length, as Laurence Anyways does run 160 minutes), and he does. "I wanted to have a double narrative," he says. "I wanted to have a narrative from the future, (which is) the voiceover in [Laurence's] conversations with the journalist. That's sort of a tribute to Titanic... It's a perk because it allows the audience to be a little bit ahead of the characters and know what's coming before the characters know themselves."
"Titanic made me want to tell stories," he continues, "To have all these characters and costumes and have ambition and think big and have dreams... It came at a very troubled period of my life. I was a bully at school and my mom was sending me to boarding school and I saw Titanic right before that. I saw it 35 times. Thirty-five times and a half, because one time my mom brought me to the theater to see As Good As it Gets and I thought it was really boring because I was young and I'd never seen it since -- I'm sure it's good -- and I said I was going to the bathroom and, instead I went to see (the rest of) Titanic."
"Laurence Anyways" begins playing in theaters June 28 in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Gainesville, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle; July 5th in Los Angeles and San Diego and July 19 in Phoenix and Salt Lake City
Clips from the film and footage from my interview with Xavier Dolan can be viewed here.
My review of the film from the AFI Film Festival can be read here.