CANNES - Three feature films into his career, I rather imagine that high-haired Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan is getting a little tired of hearing the word "precocious" directed at his work -- though one rather has to accept this occupational hazard when you not only make your debut feature at the age of 19, but get to premiere it at Cannes Directors' Fortnight rather than in your mom's living room.

Having now reached the ripe old age of 23, Dolan is a known quantity these days, his signature confident and identifiable, his reach expanding within reason. A notably young auteur as opposed to a mere upstart, he can probably shed the label any time he chooses to stop making films that are so very, very precocious -- though "Laurence Anyways," his sporadically rapturous and less sporadically maddening new effort, suggests precocity is a quality than can actually increase with age.  

Certainly, there's something childishly self-impressed about the film's 160-minute running time, an assertion of substance and consequence that belies the numerous short cuts taken with a story that could warrant intimate-epic treatment. There's more going inside this one than there was in  his vapid, gorgeously dressed sophomore film "Heartbeats," beginning with some discernible narrative stakes. Spanning the entire stretch of the 1990s, a decision seemingly made purely for soundtrack purposes, the film charts the back-and-forth peaks and troughs of one volatile heterosexual romance hit early on by an insurmountable snag: he, the Laurence of the title (played by Melvil Poupaud), wants to be a woman. His girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement, excellent), initially stunned into break-up mode, decides she loves Laurence enough to be with him whatever his form -- a moving pledge that proves ever harder to renew as the weight of others' misunderstanding, not to mention their own shifting perspective on his new identity, persistently come between them.

Where Dolan's first two films were effectively ripped from his personal diaries, "Laurence Anyways" (a clever title made overly pat by the film's final scene) is attempting to engage with experiences and sensations more foreign to him. This is ostensibly nervy, big-thinking stuff, but the story leaves him with his wings a tad charred: for all the screen time in which the subject has to luxuriate, Laurence's journey to womanhood is rendered in brushstrokes so vague and surface-focused as to call into question his interest in gender identity at all.  Yves Belanger's lovestruck camera lingers over the superficials of male-to-female transsexuality -- Laurence's deliberately harsh makeup scheme, his wardrobe, much of it more outlandishly androgynous than expressly feminine. But the psychological intricacies of Laurence's decision, plus its finer physical, medical and sexual practicalities, are something about which the film remains markedly coy, perhaps because they'd invite questions to which he simply doesn't know the answer.

What Dolan does know, however, is how to art-direct the hell out of a sequence: crammed to the gills with design details and natural ones that may as well be designed, "Laurence Anyways" is even more wantonly beautiful than "Heartbeats," with a wall-to-wall soundtrack of handpicked 1980s and 1990s pop gold that services many of the film's bravura sequences even more than the Vogue-colored lensing. (A frenzied party sequence lit and choreographed to Visage's fresh-as-ever "Fade to Grey" particularly stands out as art-trash bliss.)

He's even filched a Stuart Staples track, thereby adding Claire Denis to the ever-growing crib sheet of directors that have none-too-subtly influenced Dolan's auteur eye, making the experience of watching his films a bit like cinephile bingo: there's Almodovar! There's Wong Kar-Wai!  There's Godard! Dolan's magpie style is beginning, despite itself, to become something his own, but there's still rather too much of it: it's his most rough-hewn work, "I Killed My Mother," that remains his most affecting. It's not his underdeveloped narrative that swells "Laurence Anyways" to such an unwelcome length, but the young director's apparent inability to throw out any one of his exquisite shots. Kill your darlings, Master Dolan, and then hang them on the wall. 

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