Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement

Lushly romantic and defiantly original, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan’s third feature film is about a man who loves a woman, then becomes one. French heartthrob Melvil Poupaud plays the title character, a heterosexual Montreal author and literature teacher who’s blissfully committed to film production manager Frederique, or Fred for short (Suzanne Clement). Turning 30, he reveals his desire for a sex change to her, and kicks off a rocky decade-long period of adjustment.

Laurence Anyways opens here just as Dolan’s fourth drama, Tom at the Farm, premieres in competition at the Venice Film Festival. A former child TV star who turned to filmmaking in his late teens as a way to resume his acting career after boarding school, Dolan, 24 and openly gay, has been a festival darling since his debut feature, I Killed My Mother. He starred in that autobiographical coming-out tale, which won three awards at Cannes in 2009. He also starred in his follow-up film, Heartbeats (2010), a bittersweet comedy about a gay twentysomething, his best gal pal, and the Adonis who toys with them.

Apart from a walk-on in a ballroom scene, Dolan keeps behind the camera for Laurence, which at 168 minutes is more sweeping in scope than his earlier pictures. Casting Poupard—a leading man who has worked with Arnaud Despleschin, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Eric Rohmer, James Ivory, and Francois Ozon and made close to a dozen films with Raul Ruiz—signals Dolan’s bid for a wider audience than Canadian movies generally reach. The chiseled, six-foot-tall Poupaud initially cuts an unlikely figure as a woman. On the morning Laurence comes out to her class, there’s a long pause while the students stare; then the first to raise a hand asks a totally mundane question. The scene is followed by the prof’s parade down a crowded school hallway. Laurence may not have been born to wear a pencil skirt, but she’s a quick study.

It’s a disarming, funny sequence, and introduces the recurring motif that for Laurence the construction of identity is a kind of performance art. She needs to exhibit her own re-creation. Fred intuits this early on, critiquing makeup and buying her lover a wig. Later, fearful of losing their once easy intimacy, Fred suggests an island getaway, but Laurence refuses; she wants to be seen, not hidden. Still later, she becomes friends with the Roses, flamboyant, cross-dressing antique dealers whose hearts are really in show business. As Laurence gets more comfortable in her own skin, her wardrobe improves (Dolan designed the movie’s roughly 2,000 costumes himself).

We don’t learn much about Laurence’s past, or the psychology of the transgendered. Instead, the movie focuses on the struggle to keep love alive under great duress. Fred is the first to crack; Clement’s furious outburst at a nosy waitress echoes Jack Nicholson’s diner meltdown in Five Easy Pieces. As Laurence’s makeover advances, Fred’s stress increases, and for a while she becomes depressed and frumpy. Oddly, the opposite is true of Laurence’s withholding mother (Nathalie Baye), who at first rejects her son, then welcomes the novelty of having a daughter.

Surveys of married couples have shown that many longtime partners grow to resemble each other. By the end of the movie, Poupaud and Clement look like variations of the same fashionable brunette. In a coda we see the lovers years earlier at their very first meeting, where Laurence makes a bet with some actors on a studio set and wins $20 and a date with Fred. As a metaphor for Laurence Anyways and its resilient protagonist, the gamble that pays off is apt.