TORONTO — In Montreal phenom filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s new feature, Laurence Anyways, a handsome teacher bravely reveals to his girlfriend of two years that he wants to be a woman.
While the ensuing drama details the struggles of transsexuality, Dolan notes the French-language film represents all couples who struggle with changing identities in relationships.
“Transsexuality is a metaphor for authenticity in a couple,” the 23-year-old writer-director said at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where Laurence Anyways won the best Canadian feature prize.
“From that moment which succeeds the honeymooning, the teenage years of love . . . where you have to come off as who you really are and expect from the person facing you that she will respect you for that person and that you will respect her for who she is.
“That’s a make or break for a lot of couples.”
Opening Friday in Toronto, Laurence Anyways stars Melvil Poupaud as the eponymous protagonist, who surprises beau Fred (Suzanne Clement) with news that he feels like he was born to be a woman.
Fred is supportive and encourages Laurence to begin wearing women’s clothing, both in his personal life and on the job, which upsets the local parents’ group and ministry of education in Montreal.
As Laurence’s life takes a dramatic turn, so too does his relationship with Fred, and the film follows their decade-long journey to connect through his transition in the 1990s.
Co-stars include Monia Chokri, who was also in Dolan’s 2010 romantic comedy Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires), which won the Regards Jeunes Prize at the Cannes film festival. It was his second feature after the 2009 personal parent-son drama I Killed My Mother (J’ai tue ma mere), which won three awards at Cannes.
“What I mostly see that connects these films is that they’re all about impossible love,” Dolan said in an interview in a Toronto hotel room, wearing his signature horn-rimmed glasses, his curly pompadour more tame than usual.
“Impossible love between a teenager and his mom, impossible love between two friends and that . . . beautiful stranger that shows up, and then impossible love between two crazy lovers in the ’80s or ’90s that have great expectations for their lives that are compromised by honesty and request of authenticity from the man in the couple.”
Dolan conceived the film idea while shooting I Killed My Mother, when a wardrobe assistant revealed that her ex-boyfriend told her he wanted to become a woman.
Clement, who was also in I Killed My Mother, discussed the story with him for several years and had some say in how far her character would go in the relationship.
“The fact that he’s able to write about this at his age is amazing,” she said. “He . . . goes beyond the fear of, ’What are people going to say — that I don’t know enough?’ . . . He digs deeper in his own relationships . . . asks questions. He’s really open to observing and he’s intelligent, I think.”
Dolan also has a “boldness” onset and will change scenes and dialogue on the fly, added Clement, whose other credits include Robert Lepage’s Le Confessional and Philippe Falardeau’s It’s Not Me, I Swear.
In fact, a week after shooting the movie, he realized the pivotal scene where Laurence tells Fred that he wants to be a woman was “too boring.”
Dolan had to fly Poupaud back to Quebec from his home in Paris to reshoot, but that’s not unusual for him.
“I’ve always reshot, always. It’s not very economic but sometimes you have to,” Dolan said with a laugh.
Like “Heartbeats,” “Laurence Anyways” is filled with rousing stylistic touches, from artfully framed shots to pops of colour and a charged soundtrack.
Though many reviewers comment on the artistic touches in his films, Dolan said he’s not sure he’s found his filmmaking style.
“I’ve found stories to tell and I’ve tried to give these stories the best direction that they deserved, and I don’t know how I’ve (succeeded) to do that but I never thought I would find myself or find a signature.
“Perhaps I can help it; there are things that I like, obviously. But these three movies are highly different from one another, very different.”
“Laurence Anyways” is set to open in Ottawa on Oct. 12.