“Que de tels prix existent me dégoûte. Quel progrès y a-t-il à décerner des récompenses aussi ghettoïsantes, aussi ostracisantes, qui clament que les films tournés par des gays sont des films gays? On divise avec ces catégories. On fragmente le monde en petites communautés étanches. La Queer Palm, je ne suis pas allé la chercher. Ils veulent toujours me la remettre. Jamais! L'homosexualité, il peut y en avoir dans mes films comme il peut ne pas y en avoir”
- Xavier Dolan, Le Monde
French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is a veritable wunderkind of art-house cinema. He directed J'ai tué ma mère (2009), his first feature, at the age of 19— he has directed six features since, four of which premiered at Cannes, one at Venice, with his English-language debut currently in production. At Cannes alone he has won Best Film at Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, the Queer Palm, the Grand Prix, the Grand Jury Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury as well as serving on the Competition Jury in 2015.
Xavier Dolan’s oeuvre demonstrates a mastery of aesthetics, emotional force and narrative authenticity— his films mine the intimate emotional nuances of everyday life, elevating each gesture, each encounter to the transcendent. Indeed, Laurence Anyways was the very first film Filmatique acquired.
Laurence Anyways traces an impossible love story between a woman named Fred (Suzanne Clément) and Laurence, a transgender woman (Melvil Poupaud). Their story spans a decade— naturalistic quotidian elements of Laurence’s story converge with Dolan’s signature lyrical passages as it becomes increasingly difficult for Fred and Laurence to communicate, to relate to each other, to love each other. The result is an epic, sweeping film that takes us deep into the psychology of a character mainstream cinema systematically omits. Dolan’s third feature premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival; Suzanne Clément took home Best Actress in this category, and the film won the Queer Palm.
Like the FIPRESCI Prize, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and prizes for both Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and Semaine de la Critique, the Queer Palm is awarded by independent entities. Dolan had this to say about his 2012 Queer Palm:
“That such prizes even exist disgusts me. What progress is there to make, with awards as marginalizing, as ostracizing, that claim that films made by gays are gay movies? We divide with these categories. We fragment the world into hermetic little communities. I didn’t collect the Queer Palm. They still want me to. Never! Homosexuality can be addressed in my films or not."
Dolan’s refusal to accept the Queer Palm award proved disconcerting to a number of critics, as well as the governing body that awards the prize. However, there is truth to his argument. Why must films with queer themes be relegated to a separate category? Why can’t they be judged by the same criteria as other films?
The effort to distinguish between queer and non-queer films further subjugates the former— assigns it as ‘other.’ It is to suggest that films with queer themes possess their own set of merits. To achieve equality, this concept of ‘otherness’ must be eliminated.
The Xavier Dolan - Queer Palm controversy sparks a more expansive inquiry into the role of queer prizes at festivals: Berlinale’s Teddy Award, Venice’s Queer Lion, et al. Insofar as cinema is an instrument of sociocultural and sociopolitical discourse, how essential are these prizes? What purpose do they serve in a broader context? Does demarcating a film as 'queer' draw much needed visibility to issues surrounding its subject matter, or does it rather necessarily subjugate film as art by holding it to different standards? Have we reached a point in the transgender discourse that these prizes have become obsolete?
In the past years, the film industry has witnessed a host of controversies that center around institutional prejudices. From the woeful lack of female filmmakers, to #OscarsSoWhite, staggering statistics and mobilization around these issues has forced mainstream cinema to combat its own biases. The scope is alarming: these biases pervade casting choices, recruitment of behind-camera talent, pay gaps and the demographics of the Academy which is predominantly comprised of old white men.
This notwithstanding, some argue that rhetoric engendered by these issues can serve to further alienate their chief proponents. Certainly, aspects of such heated rhetoric can be reductive, polemic, even counterproductive. And yet, as much as anyone would like to believe that we live in a post-identity society, one fact remains: the ability to be post-identity— post-gender, post-racial, post-queer, post-feminist— invariably stems from a position of privilege.
Deconstructing Dolan’s argument thus reveals a central flaw: it posits a post-queer universe. This universe is one in which queer and non-queer films are equal, in which any demarcation between the two is marginalizing. This argument is perfectly valid inside a theoretical vacuum of cinema as art. Cinema, however, has broader consequences. It seeks to portray the world we live in, in turn shaping that world.
Incidentally, activist movements within the film industry tend to share a common mistake with Dolan’s argument— they conflate the filmmaker with the film. Regarding women and African Americans in Hollywood: the issue isn’t that we need more black filmmakers, more female filmmakers, though this is important too. Numbers are not the issue at stake. What’s at stake are their stories. Stories that aren’t being told. Dolan is correct to note that not all films from a queer filmmaker are queer, and vice versa. But queer stories are both important and necessary. That is why these awards exist.
In the United States, over 50% of transgender youth have attempted suicide. They are five times more likely to be homeless than their peers. 75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and up to 46% of LGBT youth of color experience physical violence related to their sexual orientation. Through tragedy and despair, their stories are omitted from mainstream discourse. This is where cinema can prevail. It is more convenient to uphold bias amid a lack bold, humanizing stories of what it might mean to be other in this world.
The sole critique to be leveled against Dolan, in all this, is his impulse to view cinema in a vacuum of art. But cinema is not just art— it is artifact, and changing institutional bias a slow and necessary battle, and the people who are victimized by these prejudices are never anyone you could name, because they never make it, or because they never enter the ring because they assume that they won’t make it. The purpose of queer awards at film festivals is not to marginalize; it is to integrate, to make visible, to offer an echo chamber through which these stories may be witnessed, discussed, and told.