Twenty-four-year-old Xavier Dolan is a bit of a cinematic wunderkind. After a successful career as a child actor, Dolan stepped behind the camera lens with his first film, I Killed My Mother, which he wrote, directed, and starred in before he turned 20. Since its release in 2009, Dolan has made two other films: Heartbeats, released in 2010, and Laurence Anyways, which sees its US premiere this weekend at the Angelika Film Center in New York. The film follows Fred (played by Suzanne Clément) and the titular Laurence (played by Melvil Poupaud) as their relationship is put to the ultimate test: Laurence decides to live his life as a woman. Spanning a decade, Laurence Anyways is a highly stylized, gorgeous examination of the couple’s evolving bond. I recently spoke to Dolan about why he wanted to tell this story, as well as the notion of queer cinema and why it’s a label he has come to reject.
Flavorwire: I just saw your film and loved it. What inspired you to write a story about a trans person?
Xavier Dolan: I’ve never thought of it as a story about a trans person. The story does not revolve around LGBT issues or the hardships of sexual transition — it’s always been a love story from the very beginning. That’s why it was so important that the movie would focus as much on Fred as on Lauren.
Well, it’s clear you didn’t make this out of some sort of agenda, which is a problem in a lot of LGBT stories.
Yeah, fights for rights. They’ve done it before. They’re still doing it. I’m not a documentarian; I want to tell stories, and most of the time, they will feature queer characters because I am [queer], but that’s as far as it goes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a matter of… instinctive — but for Laurence, of course, it was a little more elaborate than the other films where I think homosexuality was really left in the background and sort of an accessory or a writing tool. Transsexualism seemed like the most promising and rich metaphor to talk about difference amongst society and amongst a couple, and when I’m saying “difference,” I can also say the search for authenticity or lack of authenticity. When the honeymoon is over, some questions arise within a couple: “Can you accept me as I am?” and “Will you stay with me even though…” You know, because you lie to yourself and to the other [person] when you’re in a new relationship, and it’s not ill-intended and it’s probably not conscious at all, but everybody does. Then at one point, people progressively grow more familiar and become actually who they are more and more, and then there’s a point where you’re entitled to ask yourself, “Can I stay in this relationship or not?” Some people do, some people don’t. So transsexualism was this inciting moment for me; [it was] was the ultimate “Will you accept me as I am?”
Have you had any response from the transgender community?
Not especially, no. Well, first, how could I? I don’t have any transsexual friends. But I’ve received some emails and some letters. Plenty are very nice, but then I’ve read some blogs about transsexual people thinking, “I’ve seen the movie, it’s not realistic at all. He would never walk in that school dressed as a woman, it’s pure suicide. There’s a lack of research.” I don’t care about that shit. Everybody is different. Transsexual people are far from being different on that matter. Everybody is different, everybody is unique, and there’s not a How to Become a Transsexual for Dummies book. Maybe there is, but I honestly doubt it. So there’s no protocol or procedure. This is a movie, also; it’s not a documentary, it’s not an HBO series on how to be shocking! It’s not my mandate, it’s not my job. I just wanted to tell a story, a love story, but I don’t think that it’s preposterous or that it feels unreal or unlikely. I think many things in the movie seemed unlikely, but not the path that he — she — is following to become a woman. I did not do any research — that is true. But I did do the research for basic things, for example, learning that the voice is never affected by hormones. Little things, but otherwise, there was no research because there was no pretension or ambition of providing people with a guide to transsexual mores and lifestyle. I’m not interested in that. It was clearly a love story, and that’s how heterosexual people responded to it. The thing I’ve heard the most is that people, by the end of the movie when she gets out of a bar in a storm of leaves, they forgot that it once was a man. “She.” “It!”
Well that whole pronoun thing is really fascinating. It sort of confronts how we deal with language…
I think it’s better not to ask yourself any questions about, how are people going to feel. My thing is that I wish for people to look at these characters as they look at themselves. It would be preposterous to think that there would be such thing as a Jewish film or a black film or a heterosexual film, obviously, yet there is what we call “queer cinema,” and I don’t know that it is a positive thing. I’m pretty sure it helped in many, many ways and I’m not being contemptuous towards what it may have accomplished throughout the years, but I think it’s time to forget about these tags and these labels because they’re deleterious. They’re not helping. They’re ghettoizing, they’re putting things in boxes, and reminding people constantly that there are labels and there are tags and there are communities and there are groups of people. That is a sort of modern homophobia. It’s just a story. It’s a love story, and yes, she is also a transgender. And I mean, I Killed My Mother — I can’t believe people told me it was queer. Is this movie about a gay son or about a son? Is it about a son fighting for his homosexuality? Is that what it is, his homosexuality, his burning secret is making him be an asshole to his mom? No, not at all. It’s a mother-son dynamic and it has nothing to do with homosexuality.
If you were to choose any sort of label to describe what your work was, what would you choose?
Well, so far, it’s been a trilogy in love, even maybe, more specifically, on impossible love, and clearly, that’s what I’ve been focusing on. Heartbeats, again, way more than being an analysis on the sexual — people saw I Killed My Mother as a gay film about a gay son fighting for his mother to accept him. That’s the way people read it, and that’s what reflects who they are and what they want things to be, and then they saw Heartbeats as an endeavor to understand the sexual and romantic mores of a new generation while it’s merely a love triangle. When Jules et Jim was released, no one saw it that way because it was obviously straight, but it’s not that straight, by the way, when you look at it. I’m not a queer filmmaker, and I’m obviously headed towards what I hope will be a diverse cinematography and filmography. I’m not focusing on anything or trying to say anything. There is no statement. There’s just a total adaptation of who I am. [Many filmmakers] are writing about who they are, and when it’s not about who they are, it’s about other people through their own words and through their own imagination, hence there is a part of them in these characters, and that’s just the way it is.