Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan's third film is streaming on Mubi India until May 24th. Laurence Anyways is the love story of Fred Bellair and Laurence Alia, spread over ten years (1989-99). A conflict arises early in their relationship when Laurence declares he is, in fact, a woman and wishes to transition. Fred, a cis woman (full name Frédérique), is at first shocked, but later comes to support Laurence in his (her) decision.
Laurence, a professor, poet and novelist, is played by Melvil Poupaud, who carefully carries out his character's struggle and transition. His is a beautifully observed performance, taking us from Laurence's initial tutorials in make-up and women's wear to her eventual relaxed comfort in her new body, lounging around her flat in blue négligée. But the superior performance comes from Suzanne Clément as Fred, she of the blazing red hair, as passionate in love as in anger. Her face is very mobile, which works perfectly in this film filled with close-up shots.
Clément's achievement is to show us both Fred's deep love for Laurence (after her initial shock at Laurence's revelation, she realises she can't bring herself to leave Laurence alone) and her gradual feeling of suffocation in this relationship. As Laurence transitions, Fred is forced to make some very difficult decisions, which in later years begin to eat away at her. While Laurence's transsexuality is the focus of the film, Fred's life is given nearly equal attention. We see her and Laurence part ways, then come back together, then part again and then meet again.
Dolan and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger employ a distinctive visual style here, both in the frenzied scenes in which much is happening and the slower scenes where nothing much does. Laurence's claustrophobia in her male body comes through in the tight close-ups, but we also sense her growing freedom in the bright, colourful, slow-motion sequences set to music. The film opens with one such stunning sequence, with Laurence striding through the streets, enveloped in a mysterious smoke, as the eyes of passersby follow her. Two more that stayed with me include the first time Laurence turns up at the school she teaches in dressed as a woman (the scene where she confronts her class is wonderful) and the sequence when Laurence and Fred take a holiday together. As they walk arm in arm, clad in brilliant, billowing coats, their eyes hidden behind fashionable sunglasses, brightly coloured pieces of cloth cascade from the skies all around them. It's a truly surreal scene, brimming with joy.
And Dolan is just as good at constructing fraught, tragic moments. A striking scene comes halfway through when Fred claims after a party that she has fallen in love with someone else and breaks up with Laurence. We see both their faces in halves, one half obscured by the other's head in identical over-the-shoulder shots. But as Fred reveals her desire to leave, the camera moves behind Laurence's head to his other shoulder and we can now see all of Fred's face, as she reclaims (in her eyes) her individuality. When they are framed together, across from each other at a café table, we see between them another customer at another table: someone has quite literally come between them.
Laurence Anyways is made up of many such scenes. It is fundamentally a fragmented film, jumping forward in time every now and then, presenting long scenes without making them follow one another in a moment-to-moment way. Sometimes it is easy to slip up and miss snatches of information (especially since it is a very long film at two hours and forty-five minutes). However, this never comes in the way of grasping the larger picture: the sweeping love of these two people, and the heavy shadow cast by one's life-changing discovery about herself.