This is part of an ongoing series by Rahel Tekeste examining each of Xavier Dolan's films
Once again, Xavier Dolan delivers a film full of vibrant energy, dazzling visuals, and snazzy music to a Montreal-based story about love and relationships. However, unlike Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways feels clunky and unfocused. Many plot points are set up but not paid off, and the motivations of the titular character, Laurence, especially those involving her relationships, are neither developed nor substantive.
The film follows Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupaud), a thirty-year-old high school English teacher and poet, who, after much deliberation, comes out to her long-term girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) as a trans woman in the late 1980s. Despite Fred’s initial disgust, she stays with Laurence to help her with her transition and the tribulations that follow. However, Fred soon becomes disillusioned with the idea of dating a woman due to her own heterosexuality, a notion fueled by her transphobic mother and sister (Monia Chokri), and sinks into depression. Throughout the rest of the film, Laurence and Fred’s relationship, spanning almost a decade, becomes rocky and uncertain. After Fred admits to cheating on Laurence, the couple breaks up. Fred quickly marries and starts a family with a new man, and Laurence finds a new girlfriend named Charlotte—but Fred and Laurence eventually feel that they are only meant for each other. They once again try to start a relationship, but they decide that, when together, their relationship is only meant for disaster. The film ends on a hopeful note, with Laurence remarking on her confidence towards the new millennia and Fred reminiscing on when the two first met.
Besides her gender and her occupation as a poet, very little is revealed about Laurence and her personality. Much of what happens to Laurence are reactions to outside events, such as the transphobia she experiences from Fred and Laurence’s parents and the acceptance she receives from Baby Rose and their friends, who are also queer and trans. These plot points leave Laurence with little active agency in her own story and little enlightenment onto how she develops as a character. When Laurence reflects on her past and predicts her future as a woman at the end of the film, there isn’t any justification to her statements. We don’t see how Laurence changes in personality, and what drives this change. The film does not explore what internally allows Laurence to embrace her gender identity after so many years of repression and shame.
This lack in character development culminates in a larger issue: why Laurence even pursues a relationship with Fred in the first place. What is it about Fred, as opposed to her other girlfriend, Charlotte, that drives Laurence? This is an important motivation to explain because it makes up the crux of the entire film. For some reason, Laurence decides to pursue Fred instead of Charlotte, who is queer herself and therefore does not have any reservations about dating a woman. Also, Charlotte is willing to spend time with Laurence’s queer and trans friends, unlike Fred, who is confused as to why Laurence associates herself with them. On the other hand, Fred is straight, and is not willing to date women to the point of wishing that Laurence would return as a man, a request that is just as disrespectful as it is offensive. When the two attempt to reunite later in the film, Laurence takes Fred to visit two of Laurence’s other friends, a lesbian and her trans boyfriend, who transitioned during their relationship. Fred is disturbed by how the lesbian could continue to date her boyfriend despite his gender and her sexuality, and makes these feelings known to Laurence. Despite Fred’s reservations on these issues, Laurence still feels drawn to her. I kept wondering throughout the film why Laurence would continue to date someone who does not completely accept her for her gender identity. Laurence’s lack of self-respect would be justified if she was more developed as a character. For example, the film could have established that Laurence did not think she deserved to date anyone else due to her own internalized transphobia, the era itself (the 1980’s were a time notorious for its rampant transphobia and homophobia, due to the AIDS crisis and its prevalence in queer and trans communities), and the delay in her gender expression. The film only hints at these possibilities, but none of them are thoroughly explained.
Fred’s motivations for pursuing Laurence are clearer. In fact, we see greater development from Fred in terms of Laurence’s transition than from Laurence herself. At first, Fred is very supportive of Laurence’s gender, and is willing to do all that she can to assist her in her transition. She buys Laurence a wig for her birthday, encourages her to present as female in her job, and stands up for her when a waitress makes snide comments on Laurence’s appearance. However, as time goes on, Fred becomes less accepting and more absent physically and mentally in their relationship. She starts to see Laurence as a burden due to her transition. Despite these issues, Fred is still drawn to Laurence because she still wishes that Laurence were male. When the two reunite after their initial breakup, Fred, while embracing Laurence, impulsively checks Laurence’s body to see if she still has her male-bodied physical features. Despite Laurence’s gender, Fred still searches for traces of the man she initially dated instead of accepting the woman Laurence is now.
Despite these issues, it is clear to me that Dolan was intending to depict an accurate portrayal of a trans woman and the relationships such women can be involved in. This attempt is admirable because notable trans representation in film is lacking, especially those where the trans person is the main character as opposed to a plot device or a punch-line to a transphobic joke. I do also appreciate that Dolan tried to give Laurence some empathy, characterization, and growth. Hopefully, future directors will take note of this film’s strengths and weaknesses and use them to craft trans characters that have more agency and purpose.