When a taboo leaves the margins and inserts itself into our cultural vocabulary, it takes some time before movies can deftly address it. "Pédale Douce," a 1996 French comedy about a gay bar and its patrons, felt like a checklist of LGBT hot topics: being in the closet to the point of pretending you're in an "opposite marriage"; surrogate pregnancy; the straight women who accept you; the straight men who don't; drag shows; leather studs; and AIDS. It showed the dinner parties and house parties and club parties; never a conversation where the LGBT thing doesn't come up.
Going into "Laurence Anyways," I hoped it wouldn't be a laundry list of transgender issues. Not because we shouldn't deal with them, but because we won't until they're sold to us as non-issues. I'm not giving anything away by saying "Laurence Anyways" is about a transgender woman. And though that element is central to the story, writer and director Xavier Dolan trusts us to assume that transwoman Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) will face discrimination. So rather than linger on inevitabilities, "Laurence Anyways" instead zeroes in on the impact of transgender on a relationship, and tries to understand what makes two people stay together or fall apart.
Almost right away, Laurence tells his long-time girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) that he is a woman trapped in a man's body and wants to transition to the gender he was bereft of. Fred doesn't bite. "Everything I love about you is what you hate about yourself," she says. "That's everything you love about me?" Laurence asks.
Is gender what we love about another person? The film briefly introduces us to another couple, where one woman is transitioning to become a man. His girlfriend was a lesbian before, but she's sticking it out. "I love the person, not the body," she tells Fred, one-upping her. Just as Laurence can't help wanting to become a woman, Fred is naturally attracted to men, but she decides to give it a go anyway. Fred loves Laurence, the person, which seems like a good place to start.
The big "T" is still an elephant. Laurence, now committed to her transition, has to get people used to the idea. It tends to meet with preliminary outrage, but it progresses to indifference. We see that spectrum when Laurence tells her mother, who doesn't actually mind, but knows her husband won't accept it, so she and Laurence have to meet on the quiet. Ideally, both the parents would be on board, but Dolan refuses to dwell on pathos.
Though transphobia is always around the corner, it isn't Laurence's biggest hurdle. Her struggle is to achieve normalcy, and most of the time, Laurence manages to find acceptance. Fred even accompanies Laurence on her first day on the job as a woman. At the college where Laurence teaches, her students stare at her in her skirt suit. One of them breaks the ice by asking a question about the reading material. It turns out to bother the parents more than the students.
A gifted writer, Dolan likes to give his characters poignant mouthfuls, and you can tell the actors revel in his language. Recalling a similar instance in Dolan's first feature, "I Killed My Mother," the scene where Fred snaps at a nosy waitress is the kind of explosive monologue actors yearn for.
There are also loads of quippy moments, like during Laurence's coming out to her mother. "So you still love me?" Laurence asks. "Are you turning into a woman or an idiot?" she replies.
Dolan also isn't afraid of surrealism. When Fred has a night out by herself, she goes to a lavish ball that could be a modern-day take on the Ascot Racecourse scene in "My Fair Lady," from the human tableaux to the decadent styles. Laurence also meets a group of men and women — I'll call them the "Rose Collective" — that can't seem to hang out in a room unless it's gilded. These scenes feel like romanticized memories: the way we wish things had happened, or the things we choose to remember. The words don't matter so much as the general impression.
I'm not sure why Dolan set his film in the early '90s, but I'm glad there are no cells phones and laptops. Fred can't Google "transgender" when Laurence comes out, and she can't find an online community of girls whose boyfriends are girls. Each person is armed with no more than their own devices, and that makes the character study more insightful.
Where the movie loses 1 star is on its length: 2 hours and 40-some minutes, and not all of it useful. There are several silent clips throughout the film where little or nothing happens, and while it's all very pretty, it ultimately doesn't add value to the film or its tone. I only noticed because I was so invested in the story that I was anxious for it to unravel. I wish Dolan had trusted the strength of his material and his actors' performances enough to edit it more tightly.
The film's biggest strength is dealing with a taboo as if it wasn't. When Laurence starts dressing in women's clothing, she looks less like Jenna Talackova and more like an awkward man in a skirt, because it takes time to get comfortable with who you are. Eventually she returns to pants because a dress doesn't make the lady. Despite her ability for great tenderness, Laurence can also be selfish and rude. She's not an angelic transgender heroine; she's just exceedingly normal.