The first time Xavier Dolan dressed up in women's clothing, he was 5 years old. "I did it a lot between 5 and 12," the filmmaker recalls over breakfast the morning of his 24th birthday. "But we all do that. And I'm not talking only about gay men -- we all do that."
While on this particular day Dolan sports a tweed blazer and perfectly scruffy facial hair, looking like the poster boy of modernly masculine, intellectual cool, it's a less distinct and far more gripping representation of gender that's been dominating his thoughts lately. This June sees the U.S. release of Dolan's third feature film, Laurence Anyways, a vast, vital, and heartrending movie that follows its titular character through the 1990s as she transitions from male to female and attempts to hold on to her on-again, off-again lover. Still, Dolan insists that the drama, which won the Queer Palm at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, is about its characters' lives and fates rather than politics. "It's not a transgender story," he says. "It's a love story."
Dolan is hesitant to embrace the mantle of the Next Important Queer Filmmaker. True, the Quebec native's first major projects, 2009's I Killed My Mother and 2010's Heartbeats, portrayed gay characters tangled up in provocative, erotically charged plotlines, as will his forthcoming thriller, Tom at the Farm. And none other than Gus Van Sant, queer cinema's eminence grise, has signed on to executive produce Laurence. But Dolan bristles at the idea of being lumped in with other gay auteurs.
"There's no such thing as queer cinema," he declares. "My generation has sexual, sensual, and sentimental boundaries that are completely different from those of the generations that precede us. It's time to get the Liquid Paper out and erase some of those labels, because no one wants to be an ambassador for a ghetto."
He continues, "I've never been coy about or ashamed of being gay, but I've been making a relentless effort, since the first scene of I Killed My Mother, to avoid claiming things. These movies are not fights for rights, they're movies."
And they are movies the young director has gone to great lengths to make exactly the way he sees fit. Dolan not only wrote and directed Laurence, he also amassed and styled its costumes and even obsessed over the paint color on the set's walls. "The control of every detail is my guarantee of accessing the type of material I'm satisfied with," he says. "I was supposed to do this as my second film, but there was just no way -- I was not ready. I took four years to think about Laurence Anyways and plan every shot in my head. The trailer is literally, frame by frame, the trailer I cut in my head before I even wrote the script. All I had to do was walk the line straight to that trailer."
If the line was straight, it wasn't exactly short. What began as a story he first heard from a friend in 2008 expanded into an ambitious, nearly three-hour epic stocked with magical visuals, whip-smart dialogue, and gutting poignancy -- not to mention powerhouse performances from Melvil Poupaud (who stars as the transitioning Laurence) and the enchantingly ferocious Suzanne Clement, whose turn as Laurence's long-suffering love interest earned her the Un Certain Regard award for best actress at Cannes.
"I hope I'm improving and walking toward a cinema where storytelling prevails over filmmaking," Dolan says. "My growth is about understanding what's dispensable in my filmmaking and what's unnecessary in terms of storytelling."
Expect to see those objectives at play in both Tom at the Farm and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan's first English-language film, currently in preproduction -- and, as far as he's concerned, in any projects he decides to take on in the future. "Hollywood is knocking, but I'd rather make my own entrance and do it my own way," Dolan says. "I am going to Hollywood, but I'm afraid I won't get in through the front door. I might have to go in through the patio."