Within a given year, one sometimes finds common themes among several films: vampires, apocalyptic nightmares taking place in New York City, dreams within dreams, etc. Whether it was the film committee that invited these films or it is a trend that is emerging in popular consciousness, I watched two cross-dressing movies: Laurence Anyways and Cockpit. In both films, the male protagonists dress up in women’s clothing in order to present a different public image of themselves.
Mårten Klingberg’s Cockpit takes a comedic look at cross-dressing by seeing just how far Valle (Jonas Karlsson) is willing to manipulate Swedish gender equality hiring practices and the media in order to secure a job. As a male, Valle is wimpy and pushed around by his materliastic wife, angry activist sister, and society in general. When he loses his piloting job, he is desperate to replace it in order to keep his family intact and perhaps, also to keep his identity as a man. Ironically, he finds a loophole and dresses up as a woman in order to be hired on at a discount airline.
Valle is transformed into Maria (your suspension of disbelief is needed in what is, after all, a comedy) – a confident, strong, and feisty female pilot. Her skills and personality catch the attention of her coworkers, the womanizing co-pilot Jens (the director himself, Mårten Klingberg) and fellow female co-pilot Cecilia (Marie Robertson).Maria seems capable of keeping up the charade, with hilarious consequences. The stakes become high though when she is catapulted into the media spotlight and to the status of modern-day hero after being credited for landing a crashing plane.
Now, looking away from the comedic genre, Laurence Anyways is Xavier Dolan’s third feature in what has been a prolific career for this young filmmaker. Dolan has come a long way from his earlier work which is much more raw and amateur in structure. Laurence Anyways is an unflinching look at the intense and tortured relationship of Laurence Alia and his lover Fred Belair (Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément respectively). The chemistry between Poupaud and Clément is only equalled by the friendship between the two characters of the film. Poupaud’s more contemplative portrayal of Laurence is an excellent counterpoint to the raw energy Clément brings to the role of Cecilia, both strong performances that captivate.
Spanning ten years, Laurence and Fred have one of those relationships of unending inspiration, laughter, and debate. After years of tortured denial, Laurence confides that he wants to be a woman and begins the transition by wearing make-up and women’s clothing. Fred is supportive at first, if not somewhat puzzled, however, Laurence’s earrings and make-up attract attention that makes her defensive. She realizes that she too had expectations that coincide with social norms despite her notions of being artistic and eccentric. Laurence battles with acceptance and even basic tolerance from his lover, family, workplace, and Quebec society. He loses almost everything until a group of transgendered and queer individuals take him under their wing.
Years pass and you see the two main characters become comfortable – Laurence with a new, more understanding girlfriend and Fred married, living in a large, well-appointed house in a wealthy neighbourhood – but they are not entirely themselves either. As much as the two try to be apart, they constantly evoke the other in their day-to-day lives and inevitably Laurence and Fred must confront each other again.
It is in the second half where the film suffers from what feels like several near-endings. One wants Laurence and Fred’s suffering to end as much as the film. There is nothing worse than sitting in a theater thinking that the film should have ended thirty minutes ago, casting a shadow on the preceding two hours. Despite this, the second half of the film also contains scenes of the greatest cinematographic beauty, delightful costuming, and surreal music attesting to Dolan’s ability to be an artist in every sense of the word.
Laurence Anyways is an intimate glimpse into a love affair between two individuals bound by societal norms. In contrast, Cockpit will not advance the rights of transvestites, or others in the LGBTQ community. It will more likely make that community angry of its simplified treatment of human relationships and gender equality rights. But what both films offer is an intimate glimpse as to how people justify their actions and humanity’s basic desire to be accepted.