"Is beauty important to you?" Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) is asked towards the end of Laurence Anyways. "Is air important to your lungs?" he replies, and at this point we might hear the director's words coming from his lips. Beauty is clearly of great importance to Xavier Dolan, the enormously talented Canadian director who has just made his third feature at the age of 23. His films are full of images that just pop out of the frame; he loves to shoot attractive actors and actresses; he uses colour to dazzling expressive effect; and he frequently reverts to slow-motion in order to linger on his stylistic flourishes. Dolan has a gift for capturing moments of remarkable, vivid beauty, and he isn't shy about flaunting that gift for his audience.
Such brash confidence won't endear him to all viewers, and many critics of Laurence Anyways will undoubtedly suggest that the director is a wayward talent that needs to be reined in, but the reckless ambition of the film is one of its virtues. Working on a bigger canvas than ever before, Dolan's latest film is a 160-minute melodrama about a relationship that's tested when Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) tells his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) that he has been living a lie for too long, and now wants to live as a woman. As if that wasn't a complicated enough issue for an inexperienced filmmaker to tackle, Dolan elects to make it a period film, beginning in 1989 (the year he was born) and running to the year 2000, and shooting for the first time in the Academy ratio.
I'll admit, I was sceptical about Dolan's ability to make this work – after all, I thought his much shorter Heartbeats felt lopsided and baggy – but to my surprise he does make it work to an astonishing degree. In truth, I'm not sure of he always has a firm grasp on the complexity of his characters or their motivations, which is perhaps where his paucity of life experience rubs up uncomfortably against the scope of his ambition, but the characters remain vivid and fascinating enough to carry the picture. While we have to take Laurence's desire to transform into a woman on trust, Poupaud (a last-minute replacement for Louis Garrel, who it's hard to imagine working as well in the role) is fully invested in every moment; charming in his awkward femininity, and touchingly vulnerable. The opening shot of the film consists of people staring with curiosity, surprise or outright disdain as Laurence walks past them as a woman, and Dolan makes us feel the prejudice and threat of violence that stalks those who dare to be different.
Dolan, here staying behind the camera for the first time, draws hugely impressive performances from all of his actors, including Nathalie Baye (as Laurence's caring but cold mother) and Monia Chokri (delivering the deadpan goods in a small but important role). Suzanne Clement, who is exceptional throughout, delivers an incendiary display in one notable scene, when she angrily defends Laurence against prying questions. This moment is an example of the dramatic bombs that Dolan drops throughout Laurence Anyways; what's remarkable is that they cohere into something that feels recognisable, consistent and real, instead of blowing the picture apart. The film stands as the best rebuttal to critics who have found his previous features to be superficial. Here Dolan has found the substance to match his considerable style.
Style, and beauty, remains paramount in the director's thoughts, of course. The slick, vivid visuals are complemented by the period soundtrack and costumes (Dolan also acts as costume designer on his films), making Laurence Anyways an aesthetic pleasure for all of its 160 minutes. It feels like a major leap forward for a director whose talent and confidence was never in doubt, and while many will advise Dolan to pass editing duties over to someone with a firmer hand, I'm happy for him to keep making his movies his way. There are scenes and images in Laurence Anyways that arguably don't need to be there – a sky full of discarded clothes, a butterfly emerging from a person's mouth – but Dolan includes them simply because he can, and what's wrong with that? Storytelling discipline may come later for Xavier Dolan or it may not, but this feels like a film made by an exceptionally gifted 23 year-old, and right now it's just thrilling to watch him spread his wings.