Laurence Anyways and the Blast Zone of Becoming

Laurence Anyways | Breaking Glass Pictures
Breaking Glass Pictures

The first time I saw Laurence Anyways, I was a gay high schooler; the second time, I was a trans grad student. Laurence Anyways, the first queer-centric film I ever watched in theaters, was also the first film I ever watched in a theater alone. It felt necessary to watch the film without a chatty compatriot or parental figure in tow. With the spirit of a guilty Catholic, I entered the drafty, mildewy one-screen theatre as one might tip-toe into a confessional booth. First, I convinced my dad to drop me off at a taco stand three blocks away, weaving a convincing lie about meeting up with friends before walking over to watch the new Michael Cera film about a cactus filled with drugs. When my dad’s Honda Civic sputtered out of view, I made a beeline to the theater with my hoodie up at 3pm. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to see or hear from an almost three-hour film I had accidentally stumbled upon a trailer for during a late-night YouTube spiral. But I knew I needed ample elbow room to bear witness to its entirety, and to confirm what I suspected might be the equivalent to glimpsing hypnotic, multi-colored light emitting from the bottom crevice of an unlocked, secret door—the possibility of self glowing vividly behind it, daring me to look.

The plot of Laurence Anyways is relatively simple, considering the film’s epic runtime: in the late ‘80s, the schoolteacher protagonist, Laurence, reveals to Fred, her eccentric girlfriend of three years, that she has to come out as a woman or she’ll die. What transpires is a time-jumping, extravagantly sequined melodrama that is less about Laurence’s self-discovery and more about the harrowing blast zone of Laurence’s confession—when she utters her truth, her womanhood splinters off in every direction, impaling those closest to her.

The film positions Laurence’s trans coming-of-age as a catalyst for implosion, a secret that undermines the glorious history she and Fred have accumulated, as well as the already tense relationship Laurence has with her mother. The fallout is devastating to witness—suddenly Laurence is thrust in front of a lens that suggests nothing about her has ever been real. Despite this problematic framing, my first viewing of the film in that sparsely populated theater filled me with joy, fear, and much needed validation. Though I wouldn’t come out as a trans woman for another four years, Laurence Anyways felt like a map to the puzzle that was my body, a dysphoric labyrinth of ill-fitting limbs and inarticulate desires. Prior to that initial screening, I’d never seen a film that charted the entirety of a trans woman’s becoming so thoroughly before, and I was convinced that if I ever had the courage to one day similarly reshape myself, I would follow Laurence’s footsteps until they morphed into my own. It’s difficult to write about a film that was so instrumental in shaping my understanding of gender variance, my body as a non-static entity, and the possibility of a future removed from the gender prescribed to me at birth. It’s difficult, because when I watched Laurence Anyways after coming out as a trans woman, the love I deemed eternal swiftly fizzled out like a damp, aimlessly shot firecracker. The sparks fluttered over the pavement and vanished with the quickness of a breath. I strained to find the fragments of my searching, younger self in the images I saw, and found only the empty husks of those immaculate memories I projected my salvation onto.

The questions accumulate. What to do with a flawed film that acknowledges your existence in a medium that predominantly treats your existence as if it were illegible? And what happens when that same film positions, unintentionally or otherwise, your body as the reason for the violence enacted upon it? Perhaps there is no clean answer. Laurence Anyways complicates my relationship with film as a reflective pane of glass. In my second viewing, I found myself clawing at an image not meant for me. In place of my body, I saw only a man wearing my clothes, performing his skin as my skin, his soul as my soul. As a trans viewer, this is how I read most films about women like me; there is often a man stepping into my mirror and muddling the image, convincing those around me that we are the same—enough times that when I try to repeat again that we are not, my tongue hangs limp. How do I reckon then with Laurence Anyways, a film that once illuminated the path that helped bring me to my own womanhood? How do I articulate the mess it makes of trans pain and dysphoria without feeling complicit in its failures? Try as I might, I cannot shift the timeline of my own becoming—Xavier Dolan’s film is both a stain I can’t scrub off and a love letter I can’t entirely bring myself to burn, even though the romance has grown stale.

During my second viewing of Laurence Anyways, it dawned on me that the film is less about trans womanhood and more about the act of looking, about how the trans woman’s body becomes ravaged by the cisgender gaze. Take, for instance, the opening shots, in which we stare into the eyes of various strangers staring back at us. Their expressions are a melting pot of confusion, amusement, disbelief, and intrusive curiosity. The few shots we see of Laurence, walking by with her wild, wind-swept mane, are taken from behind. Her face leans into a dense, swirling fog. Before we can reach Laurence, she has already been made a spectacle to us, an object that encourages our voyeurism, our ogling. In her sky blue blazer, she struts into obscurity and remains there for the next 2 1/2 hours. The fiery, passionate writer we meet in the film’s first act soon evaporates, and in her place, the dazzling construct of the capital Trans Woman takes over, impressively glamorous and perpetually out of reach. For even as we bear witness to the horrific transphobia she encounters over the course of the film, we never come to know her as a person removed from the violence that threatens her peace. Rather, the film posits that Laurence, after coming out, is not simply a woman with an inner life of her own, but a bedazzled umbrella for the entire Trans Experience, in all its melodramatic and falsely monolithic glory. She stands, passive and impeccably dressed, for the camera and the cisgender spectator, both of whom reduce her to an empty, lifeless portrait of unwavering and inspiring trans resilience.

There’s a scene midway through the film that finds Laurence sitting alone at a red-lit bar, her face colored with rouge. As to be expected, a stranger approaches: a large, bald man who can’t help but notice Laurence’s hyper-feminine appearance. We know the violence of this encounter before it happens. The large man reaches intrusively for Laurence’s shoulder and gets knuckled to the ground. Laurence’s defense of herself is, at first, striking. So rarely do we see onscreen the trans woman fighting back physically against her oppressor and winning. In slow motion, Laurence rains her fists upon her attacker, the back of her coat briefly backlit by the red bar’s furious glow. But then we cut to the street. Laurence wobbles over to a payphone, dizzy with fatigue. A bloody, oozing gash interrupts the surface of her face like a fissure, further exemplifying the consequence of looking and having been looked at. We aren’t privy to the reversal of Laurence’s bar fight, but the lingering marks suggests there can be no triumph, no room to hope that the trans woman leaves any space completely intact. And while the many violences Laurence experiences throughout the film aren’t always physical, they always leave a mark.

Consider the final argument between Laurence and Fred, which takes place in the future, after they have split and reconciled. Laurence, with her long brown hair and her perfected eye makeup, begs Fred to tell her what she wants, after their small reunion is ruined by Fred’s transphobic anxiety about returning the mountainous love she receives. Laurence’s simple question is loaded with rage, desperation, and a heartbreaking desire to be seen by the one person who might understand her. But Fred spits back “a man,” effectively killing any future they might have together, and reiterating the fact that Laurence can never break free from the masculine-coded qualities of her surface layer. To make matters worse, Fred reveals an abortion she had years prior, when Laurence had just begun her transition. The framing of the abortion in this scene is noteworthy, if not confusing. Are we meant to read Fred’s choice, and consequent depression, as a brutal side-effect of Laurence’s coming out? Would Fred have opted to remain pregnant had Laurence not become the woman she always was? Is Laurence selfish in this regard, for depriving Fred of a hypothetical child she might have wanted to keep? Is Laurence’s womanhood to blame for Fred’s trauma? The scene offers no legible conclusion, though it does solidify the film’s stance on Laurence’s transition: her ultimate happiness, her right to embody herself fully, comes at the expense of everyone around her.

The transphobia in Laurence Anyways, whether it comes from a stranger or a supposed loved one, bares its teeth like a rabid beast. This is to say, transphobia is framed as easily identifiable, obvious in its outward antagonism. But trans people know that transphobia does not function solely as a beastly head in plain view. In the same way that Laurence is dehumanized by Fred’s misgendering, I too am intimately familiar with the ways that awful beast can mark me without drawing blood. However, the film positions transphobia as something uttered, something thrown openly and obviously, devoid of subtlety. “If you aren’t as outwardly nasty as the stranger in the bar, or Fred for that matter,” the film seems to be saying, “you don’t have to question if you might be transphobic.” Thus, the cisgender viewer gets to absorb the violence alongside Laurence and walk away from it unscathed. They are let off the hook for simply bearing witness, with no reason to question or self-reflect on their own possible complacency in regards to anti-trans violence. But what of the trans woman in the theater? What is she to make of the spectacle Laurence ultimately becomes?

If Laurence Anyways fails to encapsulate the trans experience as something internal trying to crawl out, as opposed to vice versa, the film succeeds in granting Laurence the agency of a full life in a scene that precedes the finale. Laurence’s face is obscured by the bobbing head of her biographer as she recounts her relationship with Fred with solemn appreciation. She sits in her chair, beautiful, powerful. She exudes an air of wealth and sophistication. While her biographer is initially antagonistic, dodging Laurence’s gaze as if in the presence of Medusa, she finally warms to Laurence’s presence after Laurence orders her to stare directly into her eyes. Here, Laurence finally gains control over the cis gaze, daring it to look upon her, acknowledge her. She looks back, directly into the camera, fully-formed. I stare into Laurence’s eyes and see, finally, the blood running beneath her skin. It’s a fleeting moment in a film that spends most of its grand running time focused on the cultivation of appearances and negotiating multiple violences, but it’s perhaps the film’s most accurate statement on self-preservation. “Take as long as you need,” Laurence seems to say to the viewer, her face worn with experience, “I’ll still be here when you finally turn away.”