After two visually lush and emotive efforts from director Xavier Dolan — “J'ai Tué Ma Mère” and “Heartbeats,” both of which landed him on the Cannes red carpet — those following his latest drama, “Laurence Anyways,” should have no problem believing the film's unconventional romance, near-three-hour runtime, and late-'80s period setting as anything less than appropriately ambitious. However, two facets sure to surprise audiences within this grand narrative are the wonderfully committed lead performances from Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément (the latter of whom netted a Best Actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes this year for her work). Centered around high-school teacher and writer Laurence's transformation into a woman, and the effects of that choice on his girlfriend Fred, Poupaud and Clément impeccably chart the emotional pitch of the film, finding in their potentially sensational relationship not a hint of melodrama, but instead a realistic through-line that keeps the audience invested over a decade-spanning narrative.
'Laurence' marks Melvil's first encounter with the director, a choice made expedient by a last-minute casting dropout for the lead, while Clement featured in “J'ai Tué Ma Mère,” where Dolan first presented the idea to her. The four-year journey since has certainly seen Dolan grow in both form and content for his most demanding material yet, and Poupaud and Clément, while in Los Angeles promoting the film's recent AFI Fest premiere, likewise spoke about their journey with the film, Dolan's directing style, and the shock of 1980's costume design.
The Playlist: Did you meet Xavier when he was doing “J'ai Tué Ma Mère,” or afterwards?
Melvil Poupaud: No, it was in Cannes for “Heartbeats.” It was there he told me about 'Laurence,' but there was actually already an actor [Louis Garrel] to play the lead then. He wanted to work with me though, because he had seen a few films I was in, so I was just supposed to play a supporting part. But then this other actor left the project abruptly, and when Xavier needed to find another quickly, he thought of me.
You both started acting at quite an early age.
MP: Yes. I'm much older, of course, but yes, I began acting when I was nine.
Did you ever talk about that aspect of your careers, and did you find you both were coming from a similar sort of experience?
MP: Not really. We had no time – I got to know Xavier a bit better once the movie was finished, but because the production was so intense and so quick for me, we would only really talk about the film — try to exchange ideas, listen to some music, things like that. So we had really no time to make those sorts of connections. I just thought, “Let's work, let's do it how you want it. I'm here for you.” After the movie was done though, at the premieres, we started to talk about things. But Xavier is so focused on his work… It's hard to shake.
In regards to the film's period '80s and '90s setting, did you guys contribute your own impressions of that time?
Suzanne Clément: Not many, but I remember when I started trying on the costumes, I hated them. [Laughs] I hated this period. It's not a period to me, it was just… boring and normal life. And when we tried everything on, the costumes seemed too big; I was so mad at Xavier, but you know, he knows exactly where and how he wants you in the scene. Some scenes were harder than others, though.
SC: The scene in the supermarket [set in the '80s], where I wear this leather jacket that is way, way over the top. I thought, “Xavier, do you hate me this much?”
MP: For me, because I knew that period so well, I didn't even notice sometimes that it was a period movie. When we were on set, he would stop and point out to me that all the cars on a street were rented, the houses were changed, and I would've never known.
SC: He just follows his intuition. He never loses contact with reality. He goes a bit wild, he experiments —
MP: But if it doesn't work, he stops. He says, “It's not working,” and everyone carry on.
SC: And with the actors it was great, because sometimes with famous actors, people take them and don't actually want to…
MP: Direct them.
SC: Right, because they're scared to hurt them. But the actor gets frustrated, because then they start to wonder if they're bad and if they are, nobody will ever say so.
MP: It was the case before with Nathalie Baye [who plays Laurence's mother].
SC: Right, so when Xavier started to actually demand quite a lot of her, she was really happy about it.
MP: Yeah, because I think it had been a while since she'd had this type of approach.
SC: And she's fucking good in the film. In the scenes with Laurence and her, there's a really amazing chemistry.
Suzanne, you've been with the film since Xavier approached you during the filming of “J'ai Tué Ma Mère.” What changed, if anything, from back then to the finished product now?
SC: Oh God, my memory is so bad. [Laughs] I know some things have changed. You know, the main story never changed that much, just smaller things. I remember when we go to the island [in Montreal for a snow-covered romantic getaway]; the first place we were supposed to go was the desert in Arizona. And I was so disappointed when the locations changed.
Because of the U-turn in temperature?
SC: Exactly. Actually, that whole part of the movie did change quite a bit… We were scripted as going together, then Fred was supposed to leave, Laurence ended up staying there. And it was like that Harvey Keitel movie — because Xavier is inspired also by what we love — it was a bit like that one with Kate Winslet…
MP: “Holy Smoke”?
SC: Yes! So Xavier, he's really… he loves his women friends, so when he heard that from me, I think he put the desert parts in the script maybe as a way for me to do the film. So we were supposed to do all of this stuff, but when we started the actual prep for the movie, it was much too expensive. For one day of shooting in the States, it was… I don't quite know, but expensive. So then we were supposed to go to another island in Quebec, a really beautiful place. But even after that the location changed to an island much closer.
MP: Xavier can adapt – that's the crazy thing about him. Even though he's that young, sometimes he seems crazy, but in fact he's very grounded and knows exactly what he can and can't do. So if the production says, “You can't do that,” he'll simply reply, “Okay, I have another idea,” and that other idea is even better.
SC: And he'll sell it to you with complete passion, always.
Did this project, and your parts within it, bring out aspects of yourself that surprised you?
MP: For me, from the start I knew I should do something with Xavier, even though I thought maybe initially he was some sort of arrogant, young fashion phenomenon, but I was interested. Then when I met him I was even more curious, so when it didn't work with this other actor, I thought, “Oh, this is the moment I was waiting for.”
And there was the fact that my mother [Chantal Poupaud] did this documentary I edited [“Crossdressers”] about those characters, and playing a woman is something for me that was always attractive. So from the start, I knew it was important to do this film. And Xavier had very precise ideas about the part. He tried to push me in a way nobody did. I felt during the shooting that it was important to listen to him, and trust him as closely as possible. It's funny too, because after she saw the film, my younger sister told me, “It's the first time I've seen you on-screen in the way I've always known you.” Even under all of the costumes and make-up, she saw that personal side.
I know “Crossdressers” is out on DVD in France, but is a US release planned?
MP: It's not out in the U.S. yet, which is a shame because it's an interesting piece. It follows four guys – they all met recently, and it's during their transformation that my mother filmed them doing everything – shaving, doing makeup, the breasts – so it's the same ritual four times. And it's almost the same experience, the same type of words when they talk about it.
What inspired her to do this?
MP: My mother, she's always been surrounded by arty creatures. She worked in the cinema during the '70s with poets, directors. And when she discovered those guys, it was like finding old friends. You know the type of advertisement old ladies, with the Tupperware and playing cards? It was like that, but with wigs. [Laughs] They all called her the 'Genetic One.'
But since we've screened 'Laurence,' we've all found out the range of stories going on like the one in the film. We've had a lot of friends that have seen it and said, “The movie is exactly like the one with my friend or brother.” So it's been interesting to see the reaction, especially with the period. Because the film is set 20 years ago, it might be easy to think things are much better now, but I think it shows exactly how difficult a relationship like this still remains. There's still a big gap in understanding.
“Laurence Anyways” has already been released in Europe and Canada, and recently found U.S. distribution with Breaking Glass Pictures. It arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Canada on November 20th.