I can count on one hand the amount of times in my life when I’ve left a cinema buzzing from what I’d just watched; exhilarated by the cinematic journey that had unfolded before me and once more head-over-heels in love with those too often insignificant things we call movies. Laurence Anyways had that effect on me today.
If I Killed My Mother was the eye-opening semi-autobiographical debut, and Heartbeats was the difficult sophomore effort born on a whim but executed with distinguished clarity, then Laurence Anyways is Xavier Dolan’s true work of art. Although his first two movies showed vast quantities of talent and untapped potential, this really is Dolan’s most complete, daring, ambitious and ultimately satisfying film yet.
The jump in theme and tone from 2011’s Heartbeats feels more akin to a giant leap. Where some found Dolan’s previous effort trivial and lacking substance in light of the film’s overpowering visual style, his aspirations here are greatly enhanced, as he examines the human condition within the realms of the transgender lifestyle. However what makes the film so interesting and accessible is that he overlooks many of the obvious psychosexual aspects and focuses instead on the character’s relationships, prioritising the love he feels and more importantly what motivates it. As a consequence what Dolan achieves is nothing short of cinematic excellence.
Laurence Alia is a thirty-something lecturer who’s deeply in love with his enigmatic girlfriend Fred. However their relationship is put to the test when Laurence confesses to her his secret: he believes he should have been born female. From here their partnership takes on a dramatic course, yet the love they bear one another prevents them from ever straying for long. As such this is, above anything else, a love story, and like all great love stories there are moments of joy, despair, great passion and anger. Dolan’s screenplay paints for us an engrossing and tense relationship that incorporates all of these things and so much more besides. His handling of the central transgender issue is sensitive and informed. For those questioning the validity of a heterosexual woman having a relationship with a transsexual man, Dolan’s example here reflects very accurately the real life events of several transsexuals I met personally whilst researching my university thesis that explored the compatibility of the transgender condition and religious lifestyles.
From the screenplay, actors Suzanne Clement and Melvil Poupaud (who stepped into the title role just two weeks before shooting began, following the unexpected departure of Louis Garrel) draw two of the year’s most gripping performances. If I could give out an Oscar today it would go to Clement, who if justice was ever to be done in the Oscar race, would see herself firmly at the front of the pack. What she produces here contains such raw power and emotional ferocity that I found myself completely in awe of her. Not once but twice during the film I wanted to stand up and applaud her unflinching treatment of this difficult role, for it was not Laurence that I found myself drawn to, but Fred. I questioned her motivations continually, fascinated by her evident love for this man but also her constant struggle to find herself when all of the focus was on Laurence’s more outward struggle to uncover his true self. By the end of the film it’s clear to see which one has come closest to gaining happiness in their sense of self, and it isn’t who the film’s premise would have you believe.
Credit should also be given to Poupaud, who throws himself wholeheartedly into Laurence, collaborating with Dolan’s vision to create a rounded and layered character. He too brings emotional depth and authenticity to his role, guiding the narrative with a profundity that comes and goes much like a sly wink of the eye, but lingers just long enough to prove that together, the three creative forces of Clement, Poupaud and Dolan have crafted something truly special here.
Perhaps more than anything what I took from Laurence Anyways is that it marks a real progression in Dolan’s career. I admit I’m bordering on fanboy levels of praise here, but this movie proves Dolan is not destined to be a star, he already is one. The indulgences seen previously (style over substance; endless slow motion) have been refined into a complete and entirely captivating drama. The odd angles and bizarre camera placements have also been toned down yet not at the expense of Dolan’s creativity, which still runs rampant with visual flourishes that shock and amaze. And to those looking sceptically at that 168-minute running time, what does it matter when the quality of filmmaking is this good?
In short Laurence Anyways is the first film I’ve seen this year that I have truly loved. It’s powerful, thought provoking, features some of the best acting of the year, and marks the true coming of age of the industry’s most exciting young director.
If richly textured dramas featuring imaginative storytelling techniques and powerhouse performances from six-year-old girls are your kind of thing, then Beasts of the Southern Wild is the film for you.
Quvenzhane Wallis is the young actress who has melted the hearts of critics and filmgoers around the world with her engaging performance as Hushpuppy, an exuberant little girl who lives with her father in the mud spattered bayous of southern America. Throughout the film we follow her journey from ‘Bathtub’ to mainland and back again, as she comes to terms with the desertion of her mother whilst suffering through the tough love shown by her father.
Director Behn Zeitlin exhibits great talent. His aptitude for grand and timely storytelling is made even more impressive when one learns that this is his debut feature. He crafts a film with a heartbeat that pulses as prominently as those his lead character loves to listen to. As Hushpuppy skips through the muddy landscapes, I found myself immersed in her world. Zeitlin creates such depth of experience that it becomes impossible not to get caught up in the beautiful cinematography and rousing score (which Zeitlin composed himself with collaborator Dan Romer). Contrary to my prior expectations this is a film which demands to be seen at the cinema, although the drama is of a very high standard, it was the film’s surprise visceral quality that really transported me to those wild plains, forcing the viewer to live out the drama with the characters, and leaving a lasting impression in the process.
Also well handled are the film’s core messages. The global warming aspect is thankfully underplayed where it could very easily have become overcooked, in favour of focussing on Hushpuppy’s journey, and her constant search for ‘home’. Beasts is all about being true to your roots, and having that ultimate sanctuary where refuge can be found even when the harshest of storms threatens to destroy everything you love.
As such this is a film that will appeal to a broad audience; it has something to say to men and women of all ages. The use of such universal themes along with Wallis’ standout performance, which brings about an inexplicable pureness that borders on profundity throughout much of the story, will guarantee that Beasts of the Southern Wild becomes one of the year’s best-regarded films.