Xavier Dolan looks very much the same as when I first met him four years ago. He has a hefty head of hair that flops back and forth as he speaks. He’s got intense, dark eyes. Endowed with a cheeky sense of humour, Dolan has an air about him, but it’s more about being fun than pretentious.
But a lot has changed in four years. Dolan arrived at Cannes in 2009 with his debut feature, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother), scooping up three awards when he was a mere 19, effectively marking the most auspicious debut in the history of the prestigious festival.
He followed up with Les amours imaginaires in 2010 (awkwardly titled Heartbeats in English), and won another Cannes award. Now Dolan has returned with Laurence Anyways, his highly ambitious feature about a couple whose relationship is tested when one announces he is, in fact, a woman and wants to transition. As his previous films did, Laurence Anyways will show at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Given Dolan’s rapid rise in notoriety — his success at Cannes while still a teenager ensured his place as a symbol of Quebec’s robust and vital film milieu — it’s impossible not to fixate on his age. He is now 23. It is something Dolan isn’t wild about discussing. “I think some people will always treat me as a student,” he says, sipping on an espresso in a café in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. “You know, like a kid. I think if I was 40 and did exactly the same films, my life would be so different. People would not review them the same way. Critics tend to contextualize my films in terms of my age.”
If Dolan received accolades for his first two films, the journey with Laurence Anyways has proven a bit rockier. TIFF programmer Steve Gravestock commends the film, arguing it is Dolan’s “most stylish and mature work to date.” But some have charged the feature is too long (it runs 161 minutes) and self-indulgent, and some trans audiences have taken issue with the representation of the trans character. Dolan concedes he is disappointed with how the film performed at the box office in Quebec, where it opened in the summer.
But despite any shortcomings, Laurence Anyways is a beautiful, brave film. Clearly capitalizing on his own experience as an actor, Dolan has culled two magnificent performances from his leads, Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément. And the film is never reductive, portraying the complexities of a strained romantic relationship with incredible precision.
Dolan says he’s been a bit taken aback by the critiques from some trans people. “Some have said the film conveys certain clichés. If by clichés they’re talking about the character being fired or the fact that many look at him in a bad way, how are these clichés? They’re clichés because they’re true. If people in Provincetown see my movie, yes, they may see clichés, but they’re in Provincetown. My movie is set in the ’80s in Montreal. People were scared shitless of anything different, and that was a place many thought of as open-minded.”
Dolan says he would have made a documentary if his interest was political. “This is a love story. I wanted to tell the story of this couple who are different. In many places, as soon as you don’t fit, they put you in a box, in a category. This is a film about two people who want to be honest about themselves.”
But most aggravating for Dolan was a headline in the Montreal Gazette that ran after the lineup for Cannes was announced last spring. Dolan granted an interview to several Quebec journalists at once, and he told them that he was thrilled to be in Cannes again but was disappointed not to have Laurence Anyways screening in a competitive category.
“When I read the stories the next day, the Québécois journalists had quoted me right. But the Gazette headline basically said, ‘Xavier Dolan is not in official competition and he’s not happy.’ It made my summer fucking hell. That’s when it started. When I got to Cannes, that was all I heard.”
It’s quite clear this touches a nerve. “I have no fucking regrets about what I said. I mean, I’m a human being. All I said was that I was disappointed about not being in official competition after six fucking months of waking up in the fucking morning and reading in the fucking newspaper that my name was among the most serious contenders for official competition. I read this in Variety, Paris Match — I read it fucking everywhere. At some point, you are everywhere in people’s odds. How was I not to have expectations?”
Time for the obligatory question: is Dolan attached or single? “I’m single. It’s been a busy summer, though, which is nice. I mean, busy professionally and sexually — but not both at the same time. TIFF is always a lot of fun.”
When pondering a romance, Dolan comes back to the age factor. “When you’re four and you’re thrown on a movie set, you grow up fast. You’re a teen at eight and an adult at 15. You move out at 17 and start your working life at 18. So I feel like I’m 40. Most of my friends are older than I am. I can’t reasonably have a relationship with someone who’s my age. I need to be impressed by people. You always want to impress people, but you want to be impressed. That’s when you fall in love.
“I think I need an actor who’s got some sort of big career going on, who won’t be using me and who I won’t be using, who I’ll be impressed with. Someone who’s working in the arts, someone who’s lived a life like mine, who’s not afraid of success or ambition.”
In the meantime, Dolan says he is always writing. “I’ve taken the disappointment [over the Quebec box office take for Laurence Anyways] and tried to channel it into inspiration. I’ve written three scripts. I’m not sure where I’m headed to. But I have a lot of hope for the future. I feel like this is just the beginning.”
Matthew Hays is a member of the jury for this year’s edition of TIFF.