Clocking in at just under three hours, “Laurence Anyways” is longer than it needs to be, potentially taxing the patience of those who might otherwise be receptive to its uniqueness and depth. Several scenes feel extraneous and unnecessarily languid; they don’t appear, at first glance, to move the story forward.
And yet, the film’s length allows “Laurence Anyways” to qualify as a romantic, deeply personal saga, as French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan sensitively follows Montreal literature professor Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud) through a decade of change as he transitions, at age 35, into the woman he knows he was born to be.
More specifically, Dolan focuses this keenly observant transgender drama on the tested love between Laurence and his longtime girlfriend Fred (played with dynamic presence by Suzanne Clément). Simply put, can she love Laurence as a woman?
Making his third feature and wise beyond his 24 years, Dolan avoids the clinical details of surgery and hormone therapy. Instead, “Laurence Anyways” examines sexual identity, societal intolerance and Laurence’s emerging confidence (as a woman and a published author) with remarkable empathy.
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Stylistically, Dolan is crazily indulgent, in a good way: Few will forget the Rose “family,” a garishly funny clan of transgender outcasts, safely outré in their own gilded cage.
On several occasions, Dolan shifts from casual realism to explosions of purely cinematic fantasy, as Laurence’s saga, and Fred’s, call for grand, visual flourishes of sound and set design worthy of MTV.
It’s a bit much at times, but by setting his film in the pre-Google era (late ’80s to late ’90s), Dolan allows his emotionally complex characters to discover (and ultimately rediscover) each other without access to LGBT websites and other perks of the information age. For all of its transgender drama, “Laurence Anyways” remains a love story, pure but not so simple.