Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Any Which Way With Laurence

Xavier Dolan is a very young filmmaker. I don't just mean in terms of his age - although at only 23 his ambition is now embarrassing the rest of us - but in terms of his style, too. Emblematic of a lot of young directors, his brief three-deep filmography has veered wildly about through a list of inspirations as he navigates the terrain for a style that feels explicitly his own. His debut, the ferocious I Killed My Mother, was, I felt, very indebted to the American independent movement and directors of the New Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s like Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes. His follow-up, Heartbeats (or Les Amours Imaginaires because the English title is lame), was like a fractured blending of Wong Kar-wai and the French New Wave. I adored them both, loved them even. For such a young filmmaker to hold such command is admirable to say the least. He wore his inspirations on his sleeve, sure, but the boldness of his storytelling and the captivating way he brandishes his style made for exciting cinema. He embraced overt style in a large-scale more than any director since Baz Luhrmann or Tarsem Singh - at least that I could think of, and as somebody with a penchant for that very type of cinema, it thrilled me to no end.

With Laurence Anyways, Dolan has made perhaps his strongest statement yet for what the rest of his career may hold. A near three-hour boutique epic if you will that charts the relationship between two individuals once the man (Melvil Poupaud in a role that demands a liquid transformative quality) decides to live the rest of his life as a woman, Laurence Anyways was clearly a demanding undertaking for the Canadian director. For the first time Dolan has removed himself from the on-screen equation (except for a brief Hitchcock style cameo during the dazzing "Fade to Grey" musical number) and stuck to a mere three hyphenated role as writer-director-costume co-designer. Still, his inspirations remain front and centre and, perhaps, that's just the way he wants it and perhaps that's his actual signature trait ala Quentin Tarantino. Of course, Dolan's work is more homage than pastiche, as he recreates and recrafts his favourite elements of cinema into something altogether unfamiliar. As he experiences more of the world - and his films imply he's already experienced quite a bit that's worth examining through a lens - I suspect his films will only grow more assured, which is an alarming concept given the impeccable streak he's already on.

With this film, Xavier Dolan has seemingly found a way to blend the exuberant flamboyance of Pedro Almodovar with that of the winsome melancholy of Sofia Coppola. Regarding the former, he all but goes out of his way to reference both What Have I Done to Deserve This? and All About My Mother, whilst allowing many moments of the film to revel in the hyper-textural landscape that the Spaniard is known for. Coppola, on the other hand, is much like Dolan in that she's used her own inspirations to help create her own style that feels both something borrowed and something new at the same time. Laurence's affinity to baroque synth-pop of the 1980s and classical instrumentals can't help but recall Coppola's Marie Antoinette, but the influence is also there in the way Dolan is able to turn a quiet moment of seeming insignificance into a painting of a thousand words. As the final scenes show the transformed Laurence finally recognising her true self and potential, the same may certainly be said for Dolan himself. Laurence Anyways is a messy film at times, but its those loose threads that give it an identity all its own, and with this film the intrepid Canuck may have just found his unique, true path to set out on.

Full of ornate, delicate beauty, Laurence Anyways is such a strong piece of filmmaking that I can't imagine its images and soundscapes escaping my memory any time soon. The billowing purple coat as Laurence's ferry takes him away through the ice, the darkened laser-lit nightclub sequence, the assortment of over-sized jackets worn by Suzanne Clément, the look of gee whiz surprise on her face as she teaches Laurence to apply make-up, the pink brink amongst a wall of white, a broad-shouldered person, whose face we don't see, disappearing into a cloud of white smoke... just remembering them now (and many others) is making me ache. This film is so incredibly beautiful that I could barely stand any more than the 160 minutes we got. Filmed in 1:33 Academy ratio, the film is nevertheless sumptuously crafted with stunning costumes and cinematography that lend the oft-maligned time period a rich decadence. The stand-out scene, a hypnotic ballroom dance sequence set to the classic beats of Visage's "Fade to Grey", is a cavalcade of hypnotic visuals as Clément struts about as if Dolan has decided to recreate a 1980s music video to full anything goes excess. Full to the brim with divine cross-fades and breath-taking camera swoops, zooms, and pans, it's an utterly awe-inspiring moment of pure grandeur and if a moment comes along in 2013 that is as eye-opening and rewatchable as that then 2013 will be a mighty good year.

And as if that scene wasn't enough proof, Suzanne Clément is truly magnificent as Frederique. She has such power in her performance that the film feels as if it's more about her journey than his. Whether breathlessly arguing with a nosy waitress, laughing maniacally along to Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" in a pot-fuelled car trip, or attempting to present a facade of normalcy as she tries to live a suburban life away from the drama of Laurence, Clément gives a performance of fiery range. She's a stunner. I can only hope that Dolan's next film proves as magnetic as Laurence and that he continues to tell queer stories in a completely unabashed way. We need a few more directors like him who are willing to go there and make "gay cinema" that embraces all the facets, both positive and negative, of our lives, whilst also inhabiting the skills to make them technical marvels. A- / A

1 comment:

Dave said...

YES. Yes yes yes. Odd that we would both write about it within 24 hours of each other - [/plug] - despite me having seen it two weeks ago. But totally agreed on pretty much everything, and a lovely breakdown of how his influences don't make his cinema derivative.

I definitely did feel like it was more about Fred's story than Laurence's - he's secure in himself, and it's her internal struggle that really powers the dramatic tension in the film. And god, Clément really is absolutely remarkable, isn't she? Scorched on my memory for a long while.