Laurence (Melvil Poupaud), a young french teacher and soon-to- be-published author, enjoys an intense and mutually loving relationship with his fiancée, Fred. But on the day after his 30th birthday, Laurence confesses to Fred that he longs to become a woman, asking her to support him in this transformation. Despite her best efforts, Fred is too hurt by this development, and they break up. Each of them tries to build a new life, without thinking of the past. Five years later, Laurence sends a copy of his first book of poetry to Fred.

Emotional identity questioned in French-Canadian cross-dressing saga.

AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE: In Laurence Anyways, the third feature from ambitious young Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan, Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence Alia, a successful young university lecturer and author in Montreal who is seemingly in the midst of the kind of delirious love worthy of a book with his girlfriend, Suzanne Clement’s Fred (short for Frederique) Delair. They happily add items to their list of Things That Minimise Our Pleasure, jump on the bed by way of waking one another and use a visit to the car wash as an excuse to make out.

alternates naturalistic dialogue scenes with bursts of luxuriant filmmaking

But Laurence also likes to dress in women’s clothing – he buys it, rather than pilfer Fred’s – and the revelation of his predilection brings deeper confession: he’s a woman trapped inside a man’s body, and wants to begin changing that. The focus of this oversized, luxurious picture is not the physical transformation, rather the emotional struggle. Even as Laurence takes the first steps, such as entering the workplace in feminine attire and with make-up on, he and Fred try to retain their bond under vastly different circumstances.

The questions raised by Laurence Anyways, which won the Queer Palm at Cannes last year and is screening exclusively at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image, are both numerous and sizeable. Does, for example, Fred’s love for Laurence rest on his gender, or is that incidental to what draws her to him? Does she need to become more masculine as some kind of compensatory effect, or merely to defend him from a judgmental and increasingly harsh world? Dolan doesn’t always answer them, but often that’s because he’s reaching for something more.

The 23-year-old found prominence with the precocious I Killed My Mother in 2009, followed by Heartbeats in 2010, and they’re now clearly introductory works – both for the filmmaker and his audience. Beginning with the stark tableaus that are contrasted by the vivid production design, Laurence Anyways alternates naturalistic dialogue scenes with bursts of luxuriant filmmaking where the technique is taken to an explicit, exalted state where the camera and the music are alert to every sense.

The film gathers in strands even as Laurence’s life becomes insular. He and Fred part ways, although they’d drawn to each other, or at least the notion of being a couple, while even his chillingly blasé mother (Nathalie Baye) has little support for her son. Across 10 years – from 1989 to 1999 with many a song on the soundtrack – Fred and Laurence build other lives that can’t endure, and the performances from Poupaud and Clement have a bitter, lived-in quality that suggests two people who haven’t found satisfaction from struggle but instead an uneasiness that can’t be righted.

Dolan, who wisely chose not to act in this production, sometimes overshoots the mark, particularly with an alternate family of drag queens for Laurence, but the youthful preoccupations of the director come with an energy and commitment that is difficult to deny. Laurence Anyways will certainly fuel comparisons made to Pedro Almodovar (particularly since The Skin I Live In), but transformation has a different purpose here. Laurence may be struggling to become what he wants, but Xavier Dolan is well on his way.