I met Xavier Dolan in NYC’s Bowery Hotel, where he was balancing the dual demands of a rotating crew of interviewers and the desire to order breakfast. He’s the director of this year’s often stunningly beautiful Laurence Anyways, which focuses on a transgender woman’s decades-long relationship with a cis-female lover in French Canada, as well as festival conversation starters I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats. As I sat down, he complimented me on my fashion, which was decidedly flattering, and I attempted to run with it as a point of inquiry. For better or worse, appropriately or inappropriately, this appears to have set the tone for the interview as a whole, which runs the gamut from costume style to digital style to film style to personal style.
So, I was going to start with inspirations, but I think since we’re talking about style, we should talk about style. I think style, especially within the transgender community, has becoming something that’s very importuning in creating a community and staking out a claim on an identity. And that was something interesting about Laurence Anyways, for me, that you’re using style in a very overt way.
Yes, although, you’re talking about fashion and style, and I don’t know if it was that obvious to you, but Laurence does not have a lot of taste or fashion. She is a pretty common gal, dresses probably in Salvation Army, does not have money, does not have a particular inclination for trends… I decided to think of Laurence as a man in a woman’s body, and for me that started with avoiding all of the cliché’s of transgender folks — like the lipstick scene in front of the mirror and all the very feminine angles and all of the wardrobe clichés. Because this is not a Clueless spin-off with queer people. It’s really a love story. And transsexualism is the ultimate metaphor for difference amongst society and amongst a couple. I never thought of it as an accessory intrigue, because the official thread of the entire storyline is, “He becomes a she,” but, the movie focuses on Fred as much as it focuses on Laurence, and Fred is by far a more fashionable being than him. He’s got his hair shaved a la. Grace Jones a little, but it’s not quite there. He’s got a little earring and he thinks it’s fancy, but he also shows up in school dressed in this — what do you call this, in English?
If that moment happens where they feel something and they laugh or cry, then I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded. But it was never about a transgender story, it was always a love story.
A power suit.
Yes. But for me, it’s not about playing dress-up. It’s just what I thought he as a man would think works for a woman. And making a movie is not the opportunity to express all of your fashion heartthrobs and darlings, and it’s not a showcase for you own tastes. It’s about understanding characters and trying to create different characters. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do, and if I haven’t done it in the past, I’m trying to do it more and more, and to think about individuals…
It was really about focusing on characters. And some of them opened some doors to some more elaborate fashion and costume design, which was fun. I mean, obviously, the dress at the ball [referring to a near haute couture dress worn by Laurence’s lover in a delirious party scene]. But also, there’s no way that that character can afford that dress, which we entirely designed.
And that’s sort of what I was getting to. Rather than saying, “It’s a high fashion” film, I meant more that the fashion is heightened. It’s all clearly been designed. Even with Laurence’s fashions, while it’s clear that in the film world they’re thrift clothes, it’s still heightened mode of “thrift clothes” design. This is something that’s true of much of your filmmaking, but I think it’s particularly interesting when applied to a transgendered character, especially when the last major one we saw in America was Transamerica, which made “dowdy” its guiding costume principle.
Well, I mean, some of the characters have high-profile wardrobes. Fred’s mom is very rich, obviously, and she’s a part of the Montreal bourgeoisie, if there is such a thing. So, she can afford stuff. But there’s no way that Fred could afford that dress, but also, there’s no way that anyone enters a party and there’s wind everywhere and a storm of clouds, so everything in that scene is a selective recreation from her point of view, because what she needs in that moment is glory and acknowledgement and approval from peers, and to be looked at. Because she hasn’t been looked at, and she’s depressed, and she’s had an abortion, and she can’t talk about it. She’s made a horribly difficult decision; she’s decided that she can’t have a baby with a man who wanted to become a woman, because she thinks Laurence is only focused on that and not on her, and so she thinks that having a baby would kill their couple. So, obviously, it’s been a terrible period for her, and she’s wants to have fun. And she needs that glory and she needs that dress.
What about the beginnings of this film? Where did the idea to make this new film come from?
Well, actually, from a costume assistant, appropriately, in a van driving driving back from a shoot on I Killed My Mother, who mentioned that her boyfriend took her to dinner and came out as a woman and requested that they stay together. And that was the log line that I needed to go home that night and to write about 50 pages. And then I knew that I needed to go back to work on I Killed My Mother and that I would not be able to write about Laurence for months, so I skipped what would become about 1,000 pages, and wrote the final scene.
So, do you have any idea what the response from the transgender community has been like so far? And in what ways does that interest you or concern your filmmaking process?
Their response interests me from the cinephile and from the audience angle, not from the community angle. I don’t care. I want them to see my movie and to feel something, and if that happens for anyone on earth, if that moment happens where they feel something and they laugh or cry, then I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded. But it was never about a transgender story, it was always a love story. And I hate tags, I hate labels, I hate to repeat that I hate tags and I hate labels, but I keep hoping that in a year or two or three or four or five, we’ll stop putting things in boxes like this.
Transsexualism is the ultimate metaphor for difference amongst society and amongst a couple.
When you’re talking about a Coen brothers film, you’re not saying that it’s a “Jewish film.” You know what I’m saying? It’s preposterous. And Thor, with Chris Helmsworth, is not a “straight movie.” I mean, it is, but you don’t say that. There are no fights for rights in this movie. Or, there are, but they’re fights for global difference, and for the global search for authenticity within society and within a couple. But other than that, there’s no social endeavor here. It’s just a movie. It’s a story, with characters. These characters are inspired by who I am, and I am not a transexual lady. I am not a bourgeoise mother. I am not an old drag queen. I am not a poetry teacher. And yet these characters exist within me and they have a lot of things I carry and a lot of values I believe, but some of them also are fascists and some of them are crazy and some of them are boring, and it’s just that a movie is so full of yourself and of who you are. But I don’t think of myself as a “gay person,” I think of myself as a person who is also gay. Sorry, that was a very long response for a short question.
I would argue that there is is a certain political bent in your desire for a world where there wouldn’t be these sorts of boxes, but that’s for another time.
Taking a very different tack, can we discuss the film/digital issue a bit? Laurence Anyways is shot on film, but your earlier work is not, which is a little bit of a different route than most other filmmakers are taking at the moment. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Oh, I do. Trust me, it was shot on film. A whole lot of it. I shot I Killed My Mother on a Red, a camera which can produce astounding work, but for me, I Killed My Mother is outrageously ugly. It’s sometimes more than I can bear. There’s something lacking, unconditionally, unavoidably, with digital, and it’s the sensation of life. And the fact that sometimes people won’t notice and won’t see a difference does not effect my central point, because it’s for me. I want to watch something and see life pulsate through the depth of field, and this is something digital will never be able to give you, because there is no chemical reaction, and chemistry is life, and hence an object comes to life. And digital will never give you this. And yet, I’m saying “this,” and yet there will be ways to take digital information and put it through a process, which will make it look like film, but what I especially hate about digital is its pretension to ape film. This is what I hate. If I were to go digital again, I would go digital full-throttle. I would use a Sony P2, so that it looks like shit and yet it’s actually quite pretty. I love it. I think it’s the best digital camera ever. Let’s embrace digital. If we’re going to go digital, let’s go digital.
But, at the same time, is it important to you that you be able to keep making films on film?
Well, I think it will remain an option for Christopher Nolan, who can’t stand digital, but for me, it will become increasingly complicated to do so. For example, there are two 35mm film labs left in North America right now. And Fuji’s film stock is dead. So, there’s only Kodak, and Afga is wherever.
They still make black-and-white stock, I think.
The problem with film is that there’s no one in the end to say thank you, because theaters aren’t projecting it any more. So, shooting on film has less and less of a purpose. I don’t know where we’ll go from here.
One last question, since we’re running out of time. What’s the best piece of negative criticism you’ve ever received, for this film or any film?
Many of the negative responses for I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats were very helpful, definitely. They helped me figure out what works and what doesn’t, and often I took them very seriously. But in the case of Laurence Anyways, I don’t know that there was any. It was all about how the film was too long and there were too many peripheral characters, but I don’t think the film would have worked any other way. It’s a film about memory and nostalgia, and if you want to have the audience remember a moment earlier in the film, it has to feel like it was five years ago, so we have to spend this time. So, in this case, I don’t know. But the positive praise has meant a lot.