Cannes' Best Film Yet? A Controversial, Cross-Dressing Epic

Talking with director Xavier Dolan about his Cannes hit Laurence Anyways

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French actor Melvil Poupaud in Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways (Alliance Vivafilm)

An epic about a man who decides to change sexes and the woman who loves him, 23-year-old Quebecois director Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways is the most exciting thing I've seen so far at the Cannes Film Festival: wildly ambitious both in form and in its ideas about gender, identity, society, and love.

The movie is, of course, divisive. Boldness in cinema is often much maligned (remember Tree of Life last year), and people here are already griping that Dolan has overreached, greedily helping himself to a buffet of cinematic devices and tricks. And to be sure, it's an imperfect movie: overripe with pain and passion, full of jagged edges, loose ends, and visual risks. But after the uneven I Killed My Mother and the gorgeous Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways is a big step forward in the evolution of Dolan's inspired, propulsive, anything-goes style (slow-mo, candy-colored visual patterns, music in sync with characters' inner states, slightly cartoonish costumes, flourishes of fantasy like clothes floating down from the sky or floodgates opening up from the ceiling). It's also his most emotionally mature film.

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Dolan doesn't overly fetishize or psychoanalyze Laurence and his cross-dressing ways. Indeed, the most surprising thing about the film is that it's just as concerned with the impact of Laurence's choice on his adoring girlfriend (played, in a powerhouse performance, by Quebecoise actress Suzanne Clement) as it is with the protagonist's own journey. As a portrait of two people trying to balance their love for one another with their individuality, Laurence Anyways has the sweep, density, and nuance of a good, thick novel. It screened in Un Certain Regard; why it was not picked for the main competition—which has, so far, been underwhelming—is beyond me.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Dolan for a chat at his hotel. Here are highlights from our conversation.

Where did the idea for Laurence Anyways come from?

A crew member on my first film I Killed My Mother once told me about her boyfriend. She said they were in a restaurant, and he told her, "I want to become a woman. Will you stay with me?" I was breath-taken, and immediately started typing the film in my mind. When I got home, I wrote 30 pages.

Why did you cast a French actor, and not a Canadian, in the title role?

I met [French star] Louis Garrel and we really had fun together, so I wrote this part for him—with his energy in mind, his voice, his humor. And then he bailed out at the very last minute. That happens, and it's OK. We had to find someone else quick, because we had spent so much money in pre-production and preparation that we couldn't afford to postpone the shoot. And Melvil Poupaud, thank God, accepted and was free. Two days later he was in Montreal.

"A crew member once told me her boyfriend told her, 'I want to become a woman. Will you stay with me?' I was breath-taken, and immediately started typing the film."

Some critics have slammed your use of music. A few said Laurence Anyways is like one long over-aestheticized music video. What's your reaction?

Presented by

Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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