Xavier Dolan last hit the scene with Heartbeats, his second feature and stylish pseudo-remake of [insert Jean-Luc Godard film title] from the 1960s. Writing, directing and also starring in the project, it felt fully-realized and auteur-ish in its nature, while also paper-thin and narratively unoriginal in nearly every way.

So it serves as a fresh sign of things to come that his third feature, Laurence Anyways, incorporates the style orchestrated in Heartbeats and adds to it a heart and the characters required to get that heart beating. Set in Montreal in the late 1980s, Melvil Poupaud stars as the titular Laurence, a 30-year old man who finally gets up the courage to become the person he’s always wanted to be: a woman. The news hits Frederique (Suzanne Clement), his girlfriend of two years, hard, but then she takes a breath, deciding to take on the challenge with her lover.

Dolan shows an emotional range in the film’s 159-minute running time that’s impressive considering the auteur’s young age (he’s 23 years young). Poupaud and Clement have an amazing chemistry together, their two characters navigating every and any possible way to stay together. The maturity of the narrative shows through in its treatment of Laurence’s “disease” (as the film points out, back then transsexualism was still deemed a disease by American boards of health). This is not a politically-charged story involving two lovers, but rather a heartbreaking love story surrounded by the politics associated with their particular situation.

Dolan, who also wrote the script, has trouble cutting down his scenes, clearly loving each and every word of his, and the film does a feel a tad bloated as a result. This is most present during a overlong aside, in which a down-on-his-luck Laurence is rescued by a fellow transexual, who introduces him to an abandoned mansion-cum-museum where a group of flamboyant transexuals, young and old, live together in harmony. They all have long-winded, not-that-entertaining tales from their past life that take up far too much screen time without moving the narrative forward. It feels unnecessary, here mostly for the ridiculous production and costume design it allows.

Luckily, when Dolan’s style works, it works in spades. The director keeps us engaged with dream-like montages featuring everything from colorful, designer clothes falling from the sky to slow motion sequences colored in both piercing red and icy cold tones.

Every fight these two lovers have feel real without being overdone, no small accomplishment considering the subject matter. The couple’s well-versed intensity blends beautifully with Dolan’s aesthetic in a car halfway through a thunderously loud car wash, water and heat beating down on the frame as Laurence yells at Frederique, trapped in his male body.

Laurence Anyways stands as a big step forward for the young Dolan. We can expect to see one of his films out of Un Certain Regard and into official competition sooner rather than later.

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Grade: B+

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