Fully immodest and intermittently astonishing, Xavier Dolan’s epic melodrama “Laurence Anyways” charts a male-to-female transsexual’s tumultuous relationship with a straight woman but stands to polarize more on the basis of its stylistic politics than its sexual ones. Indeed, the clearest achievement of Dolan’s typically self-indulgent eye-popper comes in equating its gender-bending protagonist’s metamorphoses with those in any relationship that lasts for years. Stunningly gorgeous leads prove more than capable of eliciting emotion over the near-three-hour haul, though the pic’s exhausting length and intensity will try even lovers of love stories, to the detriment of exposure and acclaim.
Nothing if not impassioned, “Laurence Anyways” ambitiously extends Dolan’s interest in cinematic form, stretching the running time to the breaking point while shrinking the frame to the nearly square Academy ratio in order to emphasize the characters’ almost claustrophobic intimacy. Meantime, the French-Canadian writer-director retains his well-tuned ear for period pop, setting the decade-long, ’90s-era obsession of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) with Frederique (Suzanne Clement) against the backdrop of blaring, blatantly silly tunes by the likes of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. If ever a meller existed to be played at maximum volume, it’s this one.
After an arresting musicvid-style prologue that doubles as a preview of coming attractions, the pic opens on 30-ish Montreal schoolteacher Laurence peddling Proust to kids and, after the bell rings, making out with redhead Fred anywhere and everywhere, even while they’re driving through a car wash (the better for Dolan’s sudsy mise-en-scene to look like it’s sobbing). Amid the boredom of administering an exam, Laurence carefully affixes paper clips to each of his fingernails — an early sign that he’s semi-secretly longing to doll himself up.
Soon enough, Laurence breaks the news to Fred that (s)he’s a woman in a man’s body, whereupon Fred freaks, as does the protag’s mom (Nathalie Baye). Undeterred, Laurence comes to school in orange heels and a green skirt, strutting the halls to the tune of Headman’s ludicrously sexy “Moisture” in one of a handful of loud, thrillingly propulsive scenes. If anything, Dolan’s connoisseur sense of adrenalized dance-pop tunes, their beats timed precisely to sensual bursts of color and movement, proves almost too intoxicating in that his bids to capture quieter moments can’t help feeling, relatively, like buzz kills.
Nevertheless, the pic’s wild mood swings approximate the ups and downs attendant to infatuation, not least the transgressive sort. Her bosses bowing to community pressure, Laurence loses her job, as does film- and video-maker Fred, deemed guilty by association. Fred, emotionally volatile and evolving more clumsily than her partner, starts frequenting discotheque orgies, while Laurence gets a beating from a barroom homophobe and is taken in by the Roses, a colorful family of queer performance artists. Recalling, of all things, “Five Easy Pieces,” an unforgettable scene has Fred exploding — cathartically, for the viewer — when a diner waitress spews bigoted talk.
The lovers eventually separate, Laurence taking up with straight-laced Charlotte (Magalie Lepine-Blondeau) and Fred having a kid with boring hubby Albert (David Savard). Laurence publishes an autobiographical novel, which Fred reads in one sitting, prompting her to cry buckets as Dolan opens the floodgates himself and drenches her with metaphoric tears. By this point, it’s clear the director means to universalize the tempestuous relationship — a political gesture that also serves to make the eccentrically styled and extremely long pic at least marginally more commercial (although many viewers will undoubtedly end up checking their watches nonetheless).
If not quite as floridly expressive as Dolan’s “Heartbeats” and “I Killed My Mother,” “Laurence Anyways” looks plenty dazzling; the filmmaker himself co-designed the vivid period costumes, which include the title character’s splendiferous array of scarves, shades, blouses, coats and pantsuits. Poupaud and Clement are both outfitted to appear incrementally more striking as the pic progresses, and the thesps appear to grow into their parts while embodying the characters’ countless physical and emotional changes. Tech credits, including Yves Belanger’s sharp celluloid shooting, are impeccably flamboyant.