“Laurence Anyways” is, at heart, an intimate story of love and transformation of the physical and emotional kind. That its now-24-year-old writer-director, Xavier Dolan, a looming sensation in his native Canada, chose to explore this unique tale in such epic, operatic fashion works for and against the film — and the filmmaker. At nearly three hours, it’s by turns an extraordinary and exhausting work.
The story tracks the rocky, codependent relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a handsome Montreal literature teacher finally ready, at 35, to live his life as a woman, and Frédérique, a.k.a. Fred (a riveting Suzanne Clément), an offbeat and fiery assistant director who, over the course of the movie’s 10-year setting — 1989 to 1999 — experiences her own conversion from Laurence’s giddy lover to wary supporter to wigged-out adversary to another man’s wife.
Laurence, meanwhile, navigates her evolving transgenderism, including settling on an appropriate “look” (Dolan, perhaps wisely, doesn’t make much of the physical-surgical specifics); deals with career ups and downs, copes with her remote mother (Nathalie Baye), finds a new live-in companion (Magalie Lépine Blondeau) and befriends a Fellini-esque performance troupe. En route, there’s a kind of growing, arm’s length quality to Laurence’s character that often limits our concern for her but also largely counters any knee-jerk “underdog” sympathy.
Stylistically, Dolan packs the proceedings with an eclectic and experimental — and occasionally pretentious — audio-visual palette that helps keep things lively even when the film bogs down in narrative excess.
But what lingers most is the notion that even had Laurence remained a man, she and Fred might have still broken up, their similarities proving more fractious than their differences. It’s an intriguing, oddly satisfying conceit — if only it didn’t take so very long to get there.
Rating: No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 48 minutes. In French with English subtitles
Playing at: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.