The transformation of a relationship is at the heart of French-Canadian Xavier Dolan's exhilarating, intelligent, sobering third feature, Laurence Anyways, a sometimes sublime chronicle of what it's like to try to make a relationship work when the person you're with turns into someone else. Were a simple 'it's complicated' love story Dolan's only goal, he would succeed without much effort. Rather, he's much more interested in depicting how the trajectory of a love story resembles what the philosophically-inclined might call a hero's journey. Like the film's recurring motif of a butterfly, the physical metamorphosis that our hero (and our heroine) goes through is a fragile, complex and deeply symbolic affair, a hero's journey of self-discovery and of battles fought and won, and lost. It's a journey that mirrors the transformation of a relationship between two soul mates, what the ancient Greeks would have referred to as a the two halves of an originally androgynous being.
Set during the awkward transitional phase of two very different decades, namely the late '80s and early '90s, Laurence Anyways eschews the type of sparkling, re-imagined nostalgia that lacquers so many movies set during the 'me decade' in favor of what living through the years after '84 or so was really mostly like: tacky, pretentious and clumsy, full of crimped hair, rounded shoulder pads, single earrings and acid wash mom jeans. Stylistically, this transitional period is a tough look to tackle for a filmmaker trying to make his mark and a challenge to embrace for anyone with any sense of style. But all you have to do is look at Dolan's previous film, Heartbeats, to realize the director has fashion sense to burn and with Laurence he's using the cusp of two decades as emphasis for transformation, both internal and external.
Turns out, Dolan not only directs, edits, and executive produces through a melodrama of fashion that is the movie's wardrobe, but also hand-picks all the clothes as the movie's costume designer. Thankfully, faithfulness to the 'period pieces' is as far as the narrative's histrionics go. Underneath all the superficial inelegance is a beautifully elegant drama that's punctuated with scenes of absolute wonder and whimsy: a conversation is shot as a Picasso-esque tableaux of half faces ending with a touch of surrealism, a caress in falling snow melts into a pointillist portrait, and, periodically, phenomena symbolically shower from above. The movie dips its hand into pure cinema. That is, at times, it becomes 'poetry which is truly cinematic.'
That's not to say that Dolan doesn't take advantage of the playful possibilities of shooting an era reclaimed and re-christened as the "Gayties," or take a break from the serious job of making a movie deep with symbolic meaning. Not at all. At only 24 years old, the openly gay Dolan merely grazed the '80s, yet his schoolboy study of that period delivers many a 'nailed it!' scene, including an electrifying one that's part send-up of, part homage to '80s New Wave MTV videos. But even then, the scene dovetails neatly back into the story, introducing conflict to our hero (and our heroine). Curiously, to this reviewer the scene was instantly reminiscent of a 'film within a film' in Brian DePalma's 1984 Body Double (another film about identity), in which that film's protagonist ends up being escorted through a porn set to the tune of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax.
It's not Laurence that's the star of Dolan's music video interlude, however. Rather, it's Laurence's (or Laurence, the movie, take your pick) other half, Frederique (Fred for short), a rough, exotic, square-jawed, mannish beauty who grew on this viewer as her relationship with Laurence unfolded. It's also her film, really, and as much as Melvil Poupaud as Laurence does a fine job of portraying a coolly angst while being between identities, it's Suzanne Clément's feisty, red ombre and side-shaved hair heroine who delivers on the emotional spectrum. It's a wonderful portrayal, one that, in a perfect world, would get the forty-something actress the attention she deserves, which one could only hope would lead to playing a long conga line of characters who aren't merely extensions of their counterparts, but who are also following their own journeys.
This is where director Dolan exceeds expectations. It's not just the male half of the story that achieves a certain conatus and endeavors through battles both physical and metaphorical until, finally, Laurence mans up and sets both halves free and out of the delicate relationship that's become their chrysalis. It's also our heroine, i.e., Fred - the original woman in the relationship - who achieves a transformation both physical and metaphorical and, at the end, opens a door to what's sure to be another epic, heroic journey for her, anyways.
Like two butterflies joining ever so briefly in mid-flight, Laurence and Fred are two halves of a soul reunited only to eventually go their separate ways.