It's been four years since Xavier Dolan first came to the Cannes Film Festival. Only 19 at the time, he quickly gained international admiration after his film, "I Killed My Mother," swept the awards of the festival's Director's Fortnight section.
After making a quick return trip in 2010 with his well-received follow-up — love triangle-centered "Heartbeats" — Dolan took a year off to focus on what is clearly his most ambitious film to date, "Laurence Anyways," which premieres today in Un Certain Regard.
Spanning a decade, the drama depicts its titular character, a man (Melvil Poupard) who decides on his 35th birthday that he wants to become a woman. This results in a considerably tumultous experience for both Laurence and his girlfriend, Fred (Suzanne Clement), who decide to stay together.
Dolan conceived the idea for "Laurence" while shooting "I Killed My Mother" in the Quebec countryside back in 2008. A woman from the film's crew told him a considerable tidbit from her life story. She had been a long-term relationship with a man who decided to become a woman.
"As she told the story, my head was throbbing with ideas for dialogue and characters," Dolan told Indiewire last week at his home in Montreal. "So when I got home that night, instead of doing my actual homework for 'I Killed My Mother,' I wrote 30 pages for 'Laurence Anyways.' I knew the title. I knew the beginning and the end."
The result is a film that in many ways explores similar themes to Dolan's previous work: Individuality, marginalization and — most of all — the pursuit of what Dolan specifies "an impossible love." His "I Killed My Mother" was really about an impossible love between a mother and his son, while "Heartbeats" was about an impossible love between two friends and the boy they both want. "Laurence" is, yes, an impossible love story set between two adults, one of whom is struggling with gender identity.
But there's also a few major differences between "Laurence" and Dolan's first two films. For one, he doesn't act in it (though he did serve as executive producer, director, screenwriter, editor and even costume designer, so he wasn't exactly slacking off).
"There was no role for me," he said. "That's the honest reason. There could have been a role. I guess I could have made one. But the story did not lead me to any place where there could be an opportunity for me as an actor. So that allowed me to focus more on the script and the characters."
In the end, Dolan said he felt like he did act in the film on a certain level.
"I acted with the actors," he said. "I was constantly speaking. It was probably one of the most annoying things on earth. I'm constantly commenting on the scene or telling an actor to touch their forehead or lean against the window or sneeze… I always have these requests. I can't help myself."
There's also the fact that — unlike "Mother" and "Heartbeats" — "Laurence" is a period piece. It begins in 1989, which happens to be the year of Dolan's birth. Dolan said it seemed natural to him to set the specific narrative of the film in the decade that raised him.
"I feel the 1990s was the ideal birthing ground for a film about sex," he said. "In this era prejudice regarding homosexuality was easing and panic was giving way to understanding regarding the AIDS crisis. A shocked world was being offered freedom. For Laurence, it seemed like a logical time to thrive as one's self."
But the film makes it clear nothing is quite so easy.
"For Laurence, what he comes to realize is that transgendered issues are one of the last taboos," he said. "And he pays the price of his dreams. He realizes — along with his girlfriend — that society may not be ready for this. And neither are their families or friends. They witness discomfort and awkwardness wherever they go."
Twelve years after the film's narrative ends, Dolan wants his audience to look at how much progress has really been made.
"This new century and new millennium was full of promises and possibilites," he said. "And we probably are walking toward concrete progress. But some of the most sophisticated people still have issues with transgendered people. And this is the debate that the movie fleetingly suggests. The question is, how much have things changed?"
What hasn't changed for Dolan is his film is again having its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Many had expected it to be Dolan's first film in official competition, but instead it was programmed in the Un Certain Regard category, where "Heartbeats" screened as well. Dolan admits he was quite disappointed by that decision, but still seemed excited for his third trip to the Croisette.
"I'm looking forward to going back to Cannes," he said. "it really is the best place for a movie to be. The whole industry is unified by this cinematic rendezvous. So for me there's always this emotional resonance. When I actually arrive in Cannes in the car that gets me from the airport or where I came in from, there is this emotion because it's the place where everything started."
But Dolan confesses that the speculation that surrounded "Laurence" potentially making into the official competition has made him a bit more anxious than usual heading into the festival.
"My true anxiety — naively and perhaps pretentiously — is that people will see the film and they will say they can see why it's not in the official competition," he said.
Dolan explained that because he put so much of himself into his work, he feels there's a lot at stake for him personally in its reception.
"These are not superhero movies that take place in unrealistic cities," he laughed. "I'm in that scale of movies that are pretty close to my skin. That hit close to home. I don't have the budget of Hollywood movie, and I'm in a very personal territory. For me, people loving or hating my films always reflects an appreciation or a depreciation of the person I am. I don't want to be narcissistic, but there's so much. Everything people say, everything people think, whether it's my left side or my right side. There's a lot of me in these movies. If people find them boring, the message I get is that I'm a boring person. If people find them pretentious, the message I get is that I should use a bit less slow-motion shots."
As for those Hollywood movies, Dolan is quick to admit he is not immune to their pleasures.
"You know, most of the time — to be honest — when I go to the movies I need a break," he said. "I need some sort of escape. I work a lot. I just want to go see a movie and have a good time. I don't want to penetrate some polished weird brain and read subtitles. I do that enough here in my home. I mean, I'll do it, but most of the time I'm going to head for some big entertainment which will could be very successful or just suck, it depends. But it often gives me a tremendous amount of pleasure."
Dolan would also be into the idea of directing a Hollywood film.
"What happens with American directors is they do their debut features independently most of the time and then they establish their name and fame and 10 years later they get to do their big big movies with their original script," he said. "I don't want to go to Hollywood and do this studio movie. I want a studio to eventually produce one of my films, when I have the maturity to do so."
So what might that film look like?
"A Christopher Nolan film like 'Batman,'" he laughed. "Oh, that'd be so much fun. I would also definitely direct something like 'The Avengers.' Or I'd love to do a 'Titanic'-type film inspired by the Costa Concordia. I would direct the shit out of that. I would love that. All these big crane shots. All these extras."
His ideal Hollywood star for this fantasy (at least for now) project? Taylor Kitsch.
"For me he's got this smile and this look," he said of the actor. "There's something going on behind these eyes and it's not just the Calvin Klein-model thing. I don't think it's temporary. I think he'll have a very healthy career."
The same can easily be said of Dolan, who is already in the midst of pre-production on another film — an adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard's play "Tom à la Ferme." "Ferme" follows a gay man, Tom, who is in the midst of depression following the death of his boyfriend.
"He goes to the country in order to go to the funeral of his boyfriend," Dolan explains. "And he meets with the mother and brother of his boyfriend and realizes they are absolutely unaware of their relationship. The brother is rather brutal, and essentially takes the character hostage."
Dolan said that Michel Marc Bouchard is currently in the midst of writing the first draft.
"He's going to send it to me, and I'm going to rewrite it and send it back to him," he said. "And then we'll work together. But that might be in one year or four years or who knows. So it might not be my next film."
Whatever Dolan's next film ends up being, it's surely to end up just as anticipated as "Laurence." And perhaps this time around, it'll finally take him into official competition.