Canadian director Xavier Dolan has never been one to shy away from sensitive subject matter, but has he met his match in transsexual drama, Laurence Anyways?

Set in the 90s (although the poster screams 80s romance), Laurence Anyways tracks ten years in the life of Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupard), a school teacher who makes the decision to become a woman. Aside from the impact which this has on his life and his job, the decision deals a blow to the relationship which he has with his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément). With his confession prompting the obligatory tears followed by a predictable make-up application scene, the pair decide to stay together – an ode to the popular notion that it is not the gender, but the person, with whom one falls in love.

In the first of many scenes which outstay their welcome, we see Laurence and Fred screaming in intoxicated delight at each other in a parked car. Ever the indulgent filmmaker, Dolan revels in painting a picture of the loved-up pair – sensuous, stylish, soulmates – but it sets the story up nicely. After all, it is not Laurence’s transition which lies at the centre of the narrative, but the tempestuous relationship which it ignites. It is to Dolan’s merit that he is able to make us understand why this couple are so determined to be together, whilst acknowledging that theirs is a love story which is both “ambitious” and “impossible”. As a distraught Fred asks Laurence if he had thought of her as a man throughout the duration of their relationship, it becomes clear that his decision will not only affect the future of the couple, but also threatens their past.

Of course, Dolan delights in the aesthetic opportunities proffered by Laurence’s transformation into a woman, having him stop short of full on femininity and instead opting to look rather more akin to David Bowie circa 1978. The opening scene follows the person, who we later learn to be Laurence, focusing only on the reactions of the Quebecois witnessing a man dressed as a woman in supposedly liberal city. Yet it’s not long until this subtle and effective approach is overshadowed by cascading indoor water torrents and butterflies emerging from the lips of our protagonist. The budget of Laurence Anyways might be eight times that which Dolan had to work with on his début feature, I Killed My Mother, but this isn’t always to its virtue. With bright patent shoes, decorative earrings and billowing raincoats, the director is clearly in his element capturing the creature he had created on camera – to the point where it feels like a shame we aren’t given more of an insight into Laurence’s actual transformation.

However, the real downfall of Laurence Anyways is, simply, its length. Dolan has admitted that he “can’t help but trust and follow [his] own instincts” when it comes to his filmmaking – and while this suggests something wonderfully honest and organic, the reality is that the finished product desperately requires another pair of eyes and a whole lot of editing. With a running time of over two and a half hours, Monia Chokri‘s crimped and moody Stéfanie is left sadly underdeveloped, while new love interest Charlotte, played by Magalie Lépine-Blondeau, isn’t even introduced until long after the film should have ended. The plot becomes somewhat sidetracked by extended family politics and takes a turn for the surreal when Laurence is taken in by the theatrical Rose family.

Sadly, the trailer for Laurence Anyways makes switching genders look a lot more enjoyable than film eventually proves it to be. There’s a lot more crying and heartbreak and a lot less bright blue eye shadow – a more honest portrayal, perhaps, but less fun too. Dolan cites James Cameron’s Titanic as one of the many obscure inspirations behind this film. Unlike his fellow Canadian’s even lengthier classic, Laurence Anyways goes round in circles for the majority of the third act, categorically refusing to sink. Dolan may have already proved himself to be a director who understands the importance of paying attention to detail, but in merging fantastical sequences with the less-than-glamorous reality of trans-genderism, he misses the bigger picture.

Laurence Anyways reaches UK cinemas on 2nd November 2012.

Read our interview with the stars of Laurence Anyways, Melvil Poupard and Suzanne Clément.

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