19 February 2013

Wild Hearts

Laurence Anyways
2012, Canada/France
Xavier Dolan

Keep the Lights On
2012, USA
Ira Sachs

Laurence Anyways is Xavier Dolan's third and certainly most ambitious film to date, notably so in the fact that he took himself out of the equation this time. In stepping away from the autobiographical, he examines an adult relationship between Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fred (Suzanne Clément) and the ways in which Laurence's desire to live life as a woman affects it. As an actor himself, Dolan has a knack for eliciting great performances, especially from Clément, who won a best actress prize from the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes last year, and the always reliable Nathalie Baye as Laurence's mother. While Dolan's characters have matured and his scope has broadened, he still employs some of his iffy stylized characteristics that were more forgivable when he used them for angsty young love in Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats).

Perhaps the biggest strikes against him are the misguided, clumsy bookends to the film. Someone should have advised him against every decision involved in the opening scene, a brooding montage set to Fever Ray's "If I Had a Heart." I'm not certain if fault should be given to Dolan for choosing a song any one of his fans would have already created so many associations with prior (note the spectacular, nightmarish music video by director Andreas Nilsson), but I am certain that the choice was wrong. It looks like a music video, creates a mood that the film never matches, and takes place in an fuzzy, uncertain time in Laurence and the film's timeline. This is a mistake that is repeated a few times during the film. The worst scene in Laurence Anyways could effectively be the best scene in a totally different movie, but as it stands, in this particular film, it feels wholly out-of-place. In what's possibly a fantasy sequence (possibly not), Fred puts on her sexiest gown and floats into a fancy ballroom, all cut to Visage's "Fade to Grey." These out-of-place music video montages don't advance the film in any way or tell the audience anything useful about the characters; instead, they're just mere reminders that Dolan has exceptionally good taste and unfortunate indications of the director's level of maturity as a filmmaker and his inability to self-edit. The film's final scene is a misfire as well, closing a long, vibrant journey on a humdrum note.

However, what Laurence Anyways does best is illustrating Laurence and Fred's explosive relationship. The film itself bares a number of similarities with another of 2012's notable queer films, Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On (both won the top prize for queer cinema at the Berlinale (Teddy) and Cannes (Queer Palm)). Both films chronicle a turbulent relationship over the course of a decade in a fashion that feels almost fragmented and elliptical, though they're mostly told chronologically. Laurence Anyways effectively loses some of its power and intrigue when the narrative splits midway through the film. Keep the Lights On, on the other hand, restricts its perspective to one half of the couple, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), and we see the relationship between him and Paul (Zachary Booth) through Erik's eyes. The sort of dramatic strengths Dolan reaches in Laurence Anyways can best be chalked up to his decision to step away from autobiography, and on the flipside, clinging to autobiography is where Keep the Lights On seems to get lost. Basing the screenplay on his own long-term rocky relationship with a drug addict, Sachs fails to depict the sort of intensity and obsession that could possibly lead someone to carry on a relationship as destructive as Erik and Paul's. During a conversation Erik and Paul have near the end of the film, one of them smiles and says, "Well, we had some good times," to which a friend of mine leaned over to me during the screening and whispered, "Did we miss that part?"

Keep the Lights On has a few other problems, not least of which the flatness of the supporting characters played by Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen, and Souleymane Sy Savane, but it does a commendable job creating and maintaining a mood and tone, beautifully lensed by Thimios Bakatakis (Dogtooth, Attenberg) and featuring just the right amount of Arthur Russell songs for the film's score. As I mentioned before, Laurence Anyways is all over the map visually and tonally, and its near-three-hour running time doesn't do Dolan any favors (though I'd never describe the film as boring). If only Laurence Anyways and Keep the Lights On could borrow each other's strengths and abandon their weaknesses, you'd have two spectacular films instead of two pretty messes.

Laurence Anyways
With: Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clément, Nathalie Baye, Monia Chokri, Yves Jacques, Catherine Bégin, Sophie Faucher, Guylaine Tremblay, Patricia Tulasne, Mario Geoffrey, Jacob Tierney, Susan Almgren, Magalie Lépine Blondeau, Emmanuel Schwartz, Jacques Lavallée, Perrette Souplex, David Savard, Monique Spaziani, Mylène Jampanoï, Gilles Renaud, Anne-Élisabeth Bossé, Anne Dorval, Pierre Chagnon, Éric Bruneau, Alexis Lefebvre, Denys Paris, Vincent Davy, Vincent Plouffe, Alexandre Goyette

Keep the Lights On
With: Thure Lindhardt, Zachary Booth, Julianne Nicholson, Paprika Steen, Souleymane Sy Savane, Miguel del Toro, Justin Reinsilber, Sebastian La Cause, Maria Dizzia, Ed Vassallo, Chris Lenk