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?"