If you look at the work of brilliant 23-year-old actor, director, and writer Xavier Dolan, there’s a strong through line that penetrates his films. It’s a powerful sentiment that can be echoed by the words of Andre Breton: If I place love above everything, it is because for me it is the most desperate, the most despairing state of affairs imaginable. And for the young auteur, all of his films thus far have dealt with the strains of love and the suffering that comes when you find your soul inextricably linked to that of another. Whether it be the love between a mother and son, unrequited triangles of desire, or the strength of unconditional devotion, Dolan’s films confront the psychologically ravaging effects of human connection.
But for the precocious intelligence and great emotional complexity to his work, his films are always as visually and atmospherically engaging as they are dynamic. However, it’s not only for the shallow pleasure of pure aestheticism—Dolan uses surrealistic imagery or dramatically staged moments in his films to visually portray the heightened emotions one feels, to mirror the character’s interior with an exterior of grandiose proportions, whether they be writhing in the throws of happiness or completely desolate and broken. "It’s important for me to have these situations where things are bigger than nature, bigger than the characters themselves, where you feel overwhelmed by life," says Dolan, whose latest feature, Laurence Anyways shows us his most overwhelming and mature work yet, amalgamating his first two features to bring a truly epic romance to life.
Spanning the course of an entire decade, Laurence Anyways tells the story of two people passionately and deeply in love with one another who are forced to confront their own notions of love and acceptance when the fabric of their relationship turns inside out. For Fred and Laurence, played brilliantly by Suzanne Clément and Melvil Poupaud, their romance is forced to change when Laurence reveals to Fred that he is becoming a woman. Together, they’re forced to examine not only the prejudices and fears of those they know and the society around them, but that which they unconsciously harbor within themselves. For ten years, Fred and Laurence find themselves breaking apart and coming together, ripping out their own hearts and that of each other, and dealing with the ultimate expression of dedication to another person and what it means to truly love unconditionally. Whether they’re physically together or apart, Fred and Laurence share an inescapable connection that is as volatile and potent as it is beautifully delicate and tender.
With his first feature, I Killed My Mother, Dolan crafted an artful yet minimalistic feature that bared the mark of his youth aesthetically but emotionally held an incredible amount of weight. And in his second feature, Heartbeats, he opted for ambitious style and gorgeous mis-en-scene over narrative complexity. But with Laurence Anyways, Dolan has melded the best qualities from his previous work into a film that is both absolutely stunning and wholly fantastic, yet hits that psychological and emotional sweet spot we so long for in a cinematic experience. And as his films are all wont to be, Laurence is impeccably scored with music that echoes the period of the film (the 1990s), utilizing the songs to reflect the interior of its characters and entwine us that much deeper into Fred and Laurence’s story.
A few months ago, during MoMA’s retrospective of his work, I got the chance to sit down with Dolan for the second time. The first was two years prior for Heartbeats, both of us a ripe 21 years old, both of us still finding our footing in the world and thusly had a difficult time connecting with one another. But this time around, it was interesting to see how much we had both changed with the passing of time and as we began to dive deeper into his work, connected on a much greater level than before. And here is what he had to tell me about his incredible third feature, the masterpiece that is Titanic, and having the balls to love someone that deeply.
I attended the talk you gave last night at MoMA. I loved seeing how surprised people were about the films that inspire you.
Yeah, they assume Wong Kar-wai and Almadovar and then are surprised to hear that I’ve only seen three films by Almodovar and he is not at all a source of inspiration. Not that I don’t think he’s talented, but the only thing we have in common is that we’re homosexual and we love angry women—but that does not define anything. For the public and critics, it seems like a no brainer—gay, colors, stilettos.
The sense of emotion is totally different. And you talked a lot about loving Titanic, which I can relate to. For a lot of people I seem to encounter, it’s a movie they saw when they were in college or when they were older and passed off as something inconsequential. But for us, we saw it when we were really young children and it became something you remember as the first time you were really moved by a film.
Yes, I saw Titanic when I was at an age where it wasn’t uncool. Everybody saw Titanic in my class and we loved it and quoted it as much as we did The Matrix or Harry Potter. It was a huge deal for everybody and it was the first big, big movie that I ever saw—we’re talking about Hollywood’s quintessential blockbuster but also embracing the genre and the codes and embracing its own corny decisions and choices in a way that makes it a perfection. And that’s why it still is one of the best movies ever made. It’s made to entertain and to touch and Titanic and everything in that movie is so ambitious. It’s just splendid work of storytelling. Everything in that movie works and works so well.
And like you said, it stays true to its genre completely.
In this industry, you are surrounded by a lot of different people—from nerds to cinema students who are looking for that harsh, deep, and serious, serious cinema—the real cinema. All those addicts are looking for something so unsuitable, so vague that sometimes happen when a movie is true to itself, but most the time all of these endeavors are huge failures in terms of intention and are preposterous compositions and end up being fiascos—it’s a mess. And there are so many of these films out there trying so hard to be something and then amidst all these efforts, you have films that can be auteur films or commercial films that work so well because they know who they are and they’re following a very precise line, which is the script and they’re walking on that line and they have a precise ambition of what they should be doing. And they can be as sophisticated as it gets or as commercial as can be. Titanic is not to be categorized in any way, but L’enfant or La prommise are also films that work so well because they’re honest, they’re not trying so hard to impress us, they’re just doing what they should be doing.
When I watch a film, what I’m looking for is to get some kind of visceral reaction from it. It doesn’t matter the genre as long as it’s an experience.
Yeah, because you’re probably not a snob. You’re not looking for some theoretical experience, you’re looking for emotion and a real experience.You can feel admiration or awe towards something that offers technically and visually audacious craft. When you watch The Cranes Are Flying, you definitely feel something because you feel the voice and the touch of a true artist,a visionary and that is emotion as well. So I’m not saying that all that I like to watch is Home Alone and Katherine O’Hara yelling "Kevin" at the airport—even if I do enjoy it a lot—but the reason why I enjoy Beetlejuice as much as I enjoy L’collectioneur is that these movies are successful in a very specific way. They work.
That grand sense of emotion translates into your films are well. I just saw I Killed My Mother for the first time.
It’s hard for me to watch that one now.
I wish I’d seen it when I was younger. I felt really awful and embarrassed watching it, actually—it felt all too familiar. But having it released now, how was it looking back at your debut film?
I’m proud of that film but it was hard to look at. I wish I would have shot that film on 35mm—I hate the colors, I hate the light, the whites. I enjoy some of the frames but I wish I’d known better. Yet if I could go back, I don’t assume I’d change it, because the goal of filmmaking is improvement and evolution. I don’t talk about evolution with a capital E, I mean personal evolution and when I watch it, I feel that I’ve evolved as a person and that I would make different choices now. But I understand the choices that were made and we had no money. Everybody was paid $100 a day and it was a walk away situation, and a lot of people were not familiar with movie sets, they came from stage or theater and they just wanted to make movies. So when I say it’s ugly, I don’t mean to be reductive but according to my sense of what ugly should look like, even then it still doesn’t work. It’s a collection of visual faux pas but again, there are moments I appreciate and I think people like that film a lot for what it provides emotionally.
Laurence was really a culmination of your past two films because it had the brutal emotion of I Killed My Mother and the grand aesthetics of Heartbeats.
I’m glad you say that, because it’s what we wished for. When we pitched the film, we mostly said that Heartbeats was a case of style over substance and then for me, I Killed My Mother was a case for substance over style.
But you can’t really have that foresight going into it with the previous two.
Of course, it’s normal. Laurence was the opportunity to try to combine both.
You have your characters dealing with this idea of impossible, difficult, torturous love or inexplicable connection to someone in all of your work. Where does this obsession with love and wanting to explore it in your work come from?
I’m young and love is one of life’s strongest experiences—aside from marriage, parenthood, disease, death, grief, all these themes and things you end up talking about when you actually live a little. So for me, love is the most accessible of these themes.
And to be knowledgeable about love and to feel it is something that transcends age.
Yeah, I feel that anyone can relate to that, so it’s a way for me to try and secure an audience to actually hear me out and maybe give a shit.
Laurence could have been this very gritty, brutal story but there is surreal, fantastic quality to it. Did you know right away you wanted to mix those two elements? I mean, just the distinction between moments like the club scene with "The Funeral Party" and the alleyway compared to the moments when they’re fighting is something I really admire.
Thank you. As much as I like combining drama and humor, because life is about the duality of both in all its absurdity, for the same reason I like to write a story with very realistic environments interwoven with more extravagant prenthasis and segments. It’s important for me to have these situations where things are bigger than nature, bigger than the characters themselves, where you feel overwhelmed by life and it makes us remember how small we are and life itself in the movie reminds the characters of that.
And it allows us to become really engrained in their lives because we see so many different emotional periods over the course of their relationship.
I do believe a relationship is a mix of the relationship you have with your parents and the relationship you have with your best friends. And for me, the way to have access to relatable truths is to base it on some of the closest relationships I had to my best girlfriends or best boyfriends, as well as the tenderness of a mother to her son. I think the goal of Laurence Anyways is to invite the audience in the story and because it’s so long and spans a decade, to make people feel like they’re part of that love story. So that’s why they’re introduced to so many things about these characters and their rituals and inside jokes. And then sometimes there are bigger cinematic manifestations of those rituals, as if it took such volume and importance and the life itself was acknowledging their love and granting them permission.
You mention these emotional memories or things that repeat throughout that allow you to mark how long this journey for them has been. At one point when Laurence first tells Fred and she’s consulting with her mother and sister, she says she needs his forearms and her mother says, "Well, everyone has forearms." And then later when they reunite after being apart for years, the first thing she does is touch his forearms.
Really? I never noticed.
Well see, you can make your own story.
And obviously, this is a very specific love story because its about a man transitioning into becoming a woman but the politics of that was not something that you were interested in exploring?
It was never any interest at all—not that I disregard it or that transgender issues don’t interest me. But it was more interesting to use it as an ultimate expression of difference amongst the couple and society itself as a manifestation of desperate quest or desperate urge for authenticity. There’s a moment in a couple’s life when you tell the other, well, we’ve been together of a year and we’ve been on that high and on that high you know as well as I do, we’re someone else, we are lying to ourselves and acting and now comes a time when you want to be yourself because you’re tired and it takes a lot of energy and imagination to be someone else to please somebody. And at one point you slowly slide towards your original self and in that moment there’s a a confrontation when the other is like, this is who I am, can we stay together? And that’s the moment when couples stay together or break up. So for Laurence to say I’m a woman, this is who I’ve always been and this is who I want to be and who I will be, will you tag along and stick around and help me and support me in that transition, is basically like saying, this is who I am do you still love me? And that worked for me for society and for a couple.
Was there a reason why you set it in this specific time period?
I wanted people to ask themselves why it was located there and then. Maybe that’s expecting too much from people, but then asking themselves what it would be like today. My answer is: not any different.
Yes, even now it would still take a tremendous amount of courage and confidence and extreme love.
I would probably not be able to do it. It would be hard for me. I don’t know how I would deal with something like this. It’s easy to make a movie on it but I don’t know if I would be up for the challenge. I don’t know if I’d have the balls to go out on a limb for someone and protect him and defend him. It basically means being free enough in your sexuality to just love someone in an unconditional way. That means a lot of a work on yourself too and that’s basically Fred’s problem in the film—but it’s not a problem, it’s a situation. She’s helpless. But in terms of the time, I’ve recently heard from friends that at a very Catholic school a teacher showed up like that dressed as a woman and he’s doing fine, the parents are all cool and the kids are okay and the board is fine with it and I find that surprising, especially in France when we’re having such issues with gay rights.
When I saw the film play at MoMA, the entire audience started clapping after Fred went off on the dinner waitress.
Yeah, which rarely happens in the middle of a film at a screening, no?
It happened at Cannes for I Killed My Mother when —- gave a piece of her mind to the principal. I love these moments. You don’t do that in life. In life you just shut your mouth and you bare yourself within and you let people talk, and sometimes you dare a "please mind your own business." But you do’t stand up and make a scene, and then you wish you had, you regret it. But cinema is revenge. It’s the perfect opportunity to have these moments. And I hope it ends up being inspiring for people out there to actually stand and fight for their rights.
As a director, and someone who is also an actor, were you acting along with them while shooting? And was this more freeing for you as a director that you’re not carrying the weight of being on screen?
Of course. I may not be credited as an actor in the credits, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t play a part in that film off camera. I love playing with actors and ad libbing with them and doing improv at the end of a scene with them and giving them notes. I’m editing the film, so when I see a scene I basically see where I’m going to cut, and it’s a matter of nanoseconds—you see the actor and you’re like, okay swallow, blink, laugh, and then leave. You know that that chain of physical and emotional reactions that will seal the deal.
Is that something you came to find on set this time around?
It got more precise with Laurence because I was in a position where I could not only act with actors, but watch them work, watch them prepare themselves, watch them get into the skin of a character. It was really in the alternate education of this and it was really inspiring and enriching. But I also got to define the approach that I like with the actors, which is constant communication. As actors, we try to leave most of the acting to coincidence, I try to live and feel the moment as spontaneously as I can but there’s always a fair amount of preparation. You see a scene and find a path of intention. If you’re thinking Mamet, you think: what is my character’s goal onto which I need to hold onto until the end of the scene? The only goal is to get away with that lie and the rest is what Mamet would call funny voices, ticks, and actors showcasing their talent and their creativity.
Did you always know you wanted Suzanne Clément to play Fred? I know she had read the script a while back when you first began writing it.
Always. She read the first draft.
How did you two meet?
I met her at a Gala, at a ceremony, and she was dancing and she was beautiful. I had shot a short with her now ex-boyfriend and so it was through him that we were introduced and we had a lot of fun. Also, she respected me even though I was only sixteen, she was nice to me. We started seeing each other once in a while, hanging out and we’d go for coffee and end up spending the entire day together buying cameras and taking pictures and then going to movies and then having dinner.
Did she and Melvil they spend a lot of time together beforehand?
Not at all. The scenes we started with were pretty intense.
Stylistically, your films have a lot of similar elements throughout. Is that something you consicously seek to do or just what comes out of the creative process?
I’m less interested in artists who make movies and see movies as a showcase for their signature. I really believe in process and script and what does that movie need. Of course there are things that I like to portray and situations, but variety of style is the same thing as variety of tone. A psychological thriller does not have the same tone as a romance flick and does not have the same style—if Silence of the Lambs was shot like Bridesmaids it wouldn’t make any sense. So I believe in a director serving the story and trying to put his ego aside and killing his instincts and darlings and true loves in order to serve the story well. I also believe that many people would not think I’m that person and that I favor of style over content or scripts, but it’s truly not my intention. I think my fourth film shows that.
I was looking over my old interview with you and you were saying that everyone wants to make one good psychological thriller.
Yeah you said everyone wants to make their Silence of the Lambs or their Se7en—
That’s exactly what I tried to do. Well, you see, more of the same then.
Self-fulfilling. So your next film, did that feel like a big departure for you or was it a natural progression to move into new territory.
Well, I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Laurence are unconsciously linked by a sort of trilogy. And Tom à la ferme is the first time I could ever commit to embrace a new genre and approach. In terms of music, there’s no music at all—there’s a score but nothing else. And why should there be? He’s secluded on a farm sort of as a hostage, eventually a consenting hostage, so there’s no music and no clips as there have been in all of the films so far. To finally have that movie that is a psychological thriller, it’s dry and simply shot, not trying to go with the aesthetically ugly or overstate but just not going anywhere, shooting as is. It’s hard now to be sincere and honest about movie making because everybody’s done everything, but we really went minimal. The focus is on the eerie atmosphere and the film’s doing what it should be, it’s not getting lost in tentative stuff. I’m proud of it.
And then your next film after that will be your first proper American film. It’s interesting to hear a young filmmaker who is working outside of Hollywood—
Trying to have a take on Hollywood.
Yes but also embracing Hollywood, because so many young people try to rebel against it.
I am definitely not rebelling against anything because I worship Hollywood.
Yeah and you admit that and want to make something people will see.
Yes, I’m not into the whole fuck Hollywood field. I worship it and I have so much fun those films. I’m not going to stick to one genre or one film my entire life. This something that I hope in ten years, when I’ll be dead, people will say about me, that I did make different things. That’s what I admire about Paul Thomas Anderson, that he can do Boogie Nights and then Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love—which is basically, staged and choreographed from the first second to the last and every shot in there is pure. It’s everything.
He claimed it was his take on the conventional romantic comedy.
Well what happened on set, Paul? I think whatever his initial goal was, the result is really, really a masterpiece. He’s so versatile, that’s what impressive, it’s his ability to do that movie and then There Will Be Blood.
Laurence Anyways opens tomorrow in NYC at the Angelika Film Center.