Xavier Dolan’s third feature reminds me of what the Trouser Press Record Guide said about XTC’s 1982 double album English Settlement: “(it) tilts like an over-frosted wedding cake. That it doesn’t quite topple is a tribute to the band.” At 168 minutes, LAURENCE ANYWAYS is an over-the-top wedding cake of a film: a confection immense to absorb all at once, but one that doesn’t leave you feeling bloated or full of empty calories. Credit its triumph to Dolan, whose ambition and precociousness would be insufferable if he wasn’t so confident or genuinely talented.

Our auspicious introduction to Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) occurs as he walks down a Montreal street to the sound of Fever Ray’s propulsive, ominous “If I Had A Heart”; we don’t see his face, but we figure out he’s not resolutely male or female—his clothing’s clearly the latter, but as a whole, he does not seem entirely feminine. From there we flash back a decade to 1989 (incidentally, the director’s year of birth) and see Laurence head-on and unquestionably male. He’s a high school philosophy teacher living with his girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clément). Their early scenes together are full-on manic, suggesting relationship-as-sensory-overload as the two rapidly trade quips and engage in free-associative debates that bespeak how much they’re on the same high-wire wavelength. That is, until they’re not when Laurence, on his 35th birthday, confesses to Fred that he wishes to become a woman.

Although the news permanently alters whatever bond they previously had, from this point on the film settles into a less frenzied pace, even as it deals with the subsequent messiness between the two leads. While the film capably charts Laurence’s decade-long transformation, the prism through which Dolan views it almost always centers on Laurence and Fred. Resolutely heterosexual, Fred initially makes an effort to stand by her partner; like probably most in her shoes, she struggles with it, but we witness a hundred shades of struggle as Fred veers between determination to accept the new Laurence, a lingering depression, chronic frustration and an unraveling of her sense of self. Clément, who appeared in Dolan’s debut feature I KILLED MY MOTHER, superbly expresses all of these conflicting emotions—her Fred is often simultaneously infuriating and sympathetic, especially during an incredible scene where she has a cathartic altercation with a nosey waitress.

At times, Clément’s such a whirlwind she almost overshadows her more passive partner. Fortunately, Poupaud is striking in his own right—as he slowly feminizes his masculine beauty, Laurence becomes a true hybrid in terms of gender. Poupaud’s dignified performance, in conjunction to Dolan’s sensitivity to transgendered people is significant; both being outsiders to that community, they avoid sensationalizing the topic, but they also give Laurence depth. Although not nearly as tormented as Fred, he’s still flawed and conflicted, but it’s a joy to see how he blossoms and eventually finds peace.

Dolan’s lucky to have two solid actors to anchor his film and in turn, they’re fortunate Dolan has such a vivid, obviously personal, attention-grabbing aesthetic. In addition to writing, directing and producing, he also designed the costumes (it seems set in the 1990s just so he can flaunt an enchantment with all the high and low fashions of the decade). He also had a hand in the art direction and sound design; on occasion, all these elements segue together perfectly and just kill, such as Fred groundlessly entering a fancy ball that looks like it was sprung from Dolan’s wildest dreams, a melange of color and couture arrestingly choreographed to Visage’s “Fade to Grey”. It’s just one of many sequences here embodying Dolan’s drunk-on-fabulousness style, but he’s completely devoted to it. More importantly, like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER-era Almodovar (this film’s Rose Family seems an affectionate homage to the Spaniard’s eccentric gender-bending archetypes), he knows how to temper the glamour with the emotional content and conversational style that was already fully evident in I KILLED MY MOTHER. While this could’ve used some of that film’s more concentrated splendor, I found it so sustainably fascinating and enjoyable that I’d watch all 168 minutes of it again without hesitation.  Grade: A

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