Movie review: Love and gender get upended in 'Laurence Anyways'

Review • Big emotions fill Canadian drama.
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The other night, I heard a story on NPR about how some college-age people are getting less hung up about defining themselves by the traditional "gender binary" of male or female.

There may come a day when sexual identity is as unique as a fingerprint, and the familiar acronym LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer — will be meaningless as anything other than a bad Scrabble draw. When that happens, movies like the vibrant and touching French-Canadian drama "Laurence Anyways" may be seen as milestones on that journey.

Writer-director Xavier Dolan's story is of two Montreal lovers, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Frederique, aka Fred (Suzanne Clément). They share the same bed, the same tastes in music and the same jokes. That is, until the day Laurence declares to Fred that he wants to be a woman.

Fred tries to deal with this transition and even helps out by giving Laurence makeup tips. But both of them struggle with the next steps, as Laurence ponders the fluidity of his identity and Fred wonders whether she can still love the man she first fell for when he's no longer a man.

The story progresses through most of the 1990s, as Laurence and Fred fall in and out of love. Dolan paints them not as types but as specific figures – two people who can't live without each other, but can't live with each other very well, either.

Each has family concerns, as well. Laurence has his mother (played by the French star Nathalie Baye), who tries to be sympathetic but is often distant. Laurence also discovers an impromptu family of aging drag artists. Meanwhile, Fred has her sarcastic sister Stéfanie (Monia Chokri), whose barbs are stinging and deadly accurate.

Dolan plays every moment out in grandiose style. His images are bursting with color, his soundtrack loaded with '90s pop classics, the dialogue flowery and smart — it helps that Laurence is a literature professor — and the emotions unbridled.

The only significant weakness to "Laurence Anyways" is Dolan's inability to edit, which is why the movie clocks in at nearly three hours. But even the scenes that feel extraneous crackle with excitement and fierce emotion. Whether Laurence wears a suit or a blouse, the movie always wears its heart on its sleeve. —


'Laurence Anyways'

The relationship between a man and a woman – and what happens when the man wants to become a woman – is explored in this exuberant drama.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, July 19.

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for sexuality, nudity and language.

Running time • 168 minutes; in French with subtitles.