Laurence Anyways, Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s third feature follows his startling, intimate debut I killed my mother(2009), chronicling the rooted rivalry in a bittersweet mother-son relationship and his charming second picture, Heartbeats(2010) which revels in the irresistible pleasures, absurdity and pain of romantic attractions. The 2012 film plunges deep into the vast wild seas of romance, desperate to test its temper, probe its fathoms of rapture and make sense of its infinite possibilities and limits. The attempt is feverish yet passionate and Laurence Anyways is a haunting and sprawling film spread over a decade (1989-1999) set on a turbulent romance thrust along the throes of a lover’s crucial self-discovery and the couple’s ensuing quest for liberty.
Series of shots of an empty house open the film, a door gently closes- it is the lovers’ dwelling, now abandoned and empty. An immediate feeling of void rises up and the story flowing in the next 2hrs45 mins is that of a searing romance burning this hole, creating this void and the lover’s desperation to water the flames, fill the emptiness before letting go.
In a ravishing introductory sequence, Laurence (a terrific, vibrant Melvil Poupaud) steps out, the veiling smoke slowly dissipating as she walks along the streets in style to the jubilant blasts of music, indifferent to the judgemental and piercing glances of the onlookers. The sequence plays out in slick slow-motion and is colossal as it presents Laurence to us, careful not to reveal her face but the glossy tresses of her hair, her confident figure and the spirit she bears. We immediately cut back a decade ago to Laurence in his cramped, dark kitchen. The striking poise and self-possession are lost in his man’s self. The journey to the Laurence we saw is going to be long, demanding and damaging not merely for him but his lady love too whose notions of identity and liberty get mixed up in Laurence’s struggle. The sharp contrasting cuts and sequences as in this noted initial instance are predominant in the film and this alteration between vibrance and darkness, of frames suggestive of entrapment and freedom with a curious play of colours enable the narrative, spelling out the fate of the central romance, its highs and lows and the eventual doom as the lovers deal with the crisis of identity.
Laurence wants to be a woman, but he is trapped in his man’s body. He wanders along graveyards, pondering over the state of lifelessness he has resigned himself to in all the years of self-deception. He, a poet, relates the state of his suffering with his childhood tale, ‘Head above water.’ He has long held his breath under water to merely emerge a futile, vain victor, fighting against his own self, constantly waging war after war. He confesses it to his fierce and compassionate lover, Fred Blaire (played by the stunning Suzanne Clement) on his 35th birthday. Their romance interestingly unfurls in enclosed spaces- in parked cars, within their homes, they kiss, make lists of things known to diminish their pleasure ranging from eatables such as dark chocolate to serious psychological conditions as latent childhood trauma- all the while the camera moving swiftly from one to the other. There is more delirium in its movements than energy and it resonates strongly with the course of the lovers’ hearts reaching out briefly to the other, drawing back and settling in the self.
Fred is devastated and her torment arises less from Laurence’s transsexuality than in her unavoidable suspicion on the nature of their bond, their romance so far, is it a farce after all? Pained and angered, she remarks that ‘everything must be reinterpreted’ and as Laurence assures her that it is not so, she steps up for him with conviction and sympathy.
In an exquisitely shot dinner scene which comes post Laurence’s embrace of his female identity aided by Fred, their interaction unfolds in singular, separate shots- Laurence clothed in plain red and black, merged with the similar hues of the walls behind him and Fred in a floral dress of white and red, one with her background. They seem to be two individuals from different worlds communicating with each other as the scene sharply exudes the sense of abyss and the nature of the crisis raging between the lovers. In the concluding shot of the scene, we witness them from afar in a distinct circle of light as the world around rests in an impenetrable, immense darkness. Fred’s hope of taking their extraordinary relationship higher and further is the only light they have in a nasty world with its narrow-minded conventions of normalcy. Soon the darkness seeps into their home eating up their hopes of liberty, stressing that they can’t have it all.
As Laurence redefines his own self, engaging in his revolution, his lover is left to despair in solitude. His vital self-consumption pulls them apart and Fred is stifled, forced to make a choice. She goes through a metamorphosis too. In her glorious metaphoric rebirth, she emerges out her clothes, scatters them along the narrow, long passage of their home and steps naked, new into the shower. She sports her flamboyant, free new self in the Cinebal, a wild and fantastic costume party which Dolan curiously states in an interview as something that happens in her own mind. In the shower, Fred discards the handmade pendant Laurence gifted her in their first meet and her mind is troubled by that question he never asked, a concern he never showed as she looked up to Laurence longingly. That unasked question being, ‘What is on your mind?’ He is barely there for her and the dynamics of the relationship ruptures, setting the lovers free in their separate ways. Their freedom reeks of separation and the film disputes their longing by its irony of visually flaunting the couple’s new found liberty in grand, wide shots- Laurence outside his winter cottage and Fred in her new, well-illumined and sprawling home, both finally at harmony with their respective surroundings and neither challenged nor confined by the spaces around them.
In Laurence’s attempt to win Fred back, he resorts to obsessive and dramatic gestures and the lovers once again give it a go, this time retreating to their dream destination, The Isle of Black. We know from earlier that they have always wanted to be there, to visit it once- this symbol of their dreams, of a glimmering promise of what could be. They walk along the streets of this frozen desert with a dreamy resplendent shower of clothes. This colourful rain of clothes is a relic, a ritual from their past when Laurence used to wake her up by dropping on her piles of freshly washed clothes. The dream ruptures soon and nightmares tread menacingly into their paradise bringing with them the darkness once again washing over the screen in the lovers’ ultimate confrontation as they confess overwhelming feelings of their tremendous love and throbbing hate.
“Come down to Earth”, Fred says to Laurence in their awkward, restless meet many years post the episode in their lover’s paradise and Laurence replies, “Listen to yourself, come down to earth? But we flew so high.” He never dismisses the thrall of his love and is content to reside in its grips, never venturing to deal closely with the turbulence existing between them despite acknowledging it. Hence as Fred moves apart, setting up her own life, Laurence continues to resurrect her in his works of fiction as the mysterious A.Z woman, one who is his beginning and end. The passing comment of his during their ‘reunion’ as Fred walks into the bar lit with heavy blue hues references Murphy’s Law and their romance too operates according to its philosophy: ‘Anything that will go wrong will go wrong.’
Existing in the league of movies as Marriage story, Blue Valentine and Before Midnight, Laurence Anyways also original with its unique visual style,more urgent conflict and added delirium (identifiable with Dolan’s penchant for strained relationships and translating their tensions into dashing, sensational visuals) furthers the meditation on the substance of romance itself- how far will love go, how strong can it stand holding the slipping sharp pieces together and at what cost? If the grand price you pay is the self, why battle against the inevitable at all. Romance is often torn between the rare epic immortality expected of it and its more natural and noble ephemeral nature.
(“Love is an ever-fixed mark that looks on the tempests and is never shaken.” – Shakespeare; “There is no noble love but that which recognizes itself to be both short-lived and exceptional”- Albert Camus) Laurence Anyways flames in the heart of this continuing turbulence, in the seemingly absurd yet brutal eternal conflict of romance.
The film’s haunt intensifies in its closure, in the gold-tinted first meet cute of Laurence and Fred, so removed from the delirium prevalent in the film and consumed in an innocent delight. This title-defining scene pronounces all that will define and rupture the relationship from Laurence’s charms, his wink, the butterfly pendant, the start of the lists of things diminishing their pleasure and the ultimate compromise of identity.
“I am Laurence Alia.”
“It is Laurence anyways.” : this is Laurence supressing his true feminine self in their initial meet, revealing only a part of him, to himself, to her and from here Fred too takes the cue and conjures up an inviolable image of Laurence- one that will haunt him, her, us and their romance.