Two beautiful 20-something French Canadians, best friends Marie and Francis, meet a mysterious young man called Nicolas who woos them both into believing either one has a chance of loving him. Nicholas makes remarks and gestures to both, but is Nicholas into boys or girls? The more Marie and Francis vie for Nico’s affections the more strained their friendship grows in Heartbeats, a special film. The story is right out of an episode of “Will & Grace” and yet it has a passion and honesty missing in Hollywood romantic comedies. There is a necessity and earnestness in writer / director / actor Xavier Dolan’s storytelling that is quite refreshing. He focuses on one narrative idea and lingers painfully and playfully over the possibilities. But it is not so much the story being told that is fascinating, it is the director’s style. Part Jean-Luc Godard, part Quentin Tarantino, derivative of a bygone era of moviemaking and still overwhelmingly hypnotic, Dolan is one of the most promising young directors at only 23 years old. A triple threat, I personally cannot wait to see what he does next.
Long passages are shot in crisp slow-motion, heightening the passions of this menage-a-trois. Fashion is also on display. Dolan and lead actress Monia Chokrin wear eye catching, vibrant clothes that seem fittingly anachronistic. Dolan is credited with costumes as well. This kid has a keen eye; every shot has meaning and intensity. An angry wrestle on the forest leaves captures Francis and Marie’s flailing bodies; the tilt of a head or hand feels so punctuated as if made by gods on Mount Olympus. Dolan lingers on these images that he deems worthy of scrutiny. He is as assured as a filmmaker who has nothing to lose. I saw Heartbeats during my first visit to New York City. It was a Saturday night. I will always associate the style, imagination, the unique qualities of this film with that great city with these same great qualities. Classic orchestral music mixes with classic and contemporary pop songs furthering the feel of a modern vintage film. Terrifically photographed post-coital scenes with Francis and Marie and their ever-changing men are bathed in one thick color. Marie is red, Francis is green. Already smitten with pretty boy Nico, both make embarrassing conversation with the men they’ve just shared their bodies with. Marie sarcastically describes the act just finished as “engrossing” while Francis, when asked by his very handsome lover to describe his dream man, describes someone who looks nothing like the man in his bed. Both scenes use music by Johann Sebastian Bach, pieces from the composer’s now-famous cello suites, some of the saddest, most profound music I’ve ever heard. An Italian rendition of Cher’s 1966 song “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” performed by Dalida becomes the film’s anthem. It is heard in moments when Marie and Francis make themselves beautiful for Nicholas. Quite appropriate.
What I found most powerful in Dolan’s use of visuals and music is his confidence that the material will work. And boy does it! This is one of the most gleeful, self-indulgent exercises I have ever seen, and that is a great compliment. No American filmmaker, certainly no one in Hollywood, would have the nerve to present a finished film like this to their public. This may have contributed to the 8 minute standing ovation the film received at the Cannes Film Festival.
Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, Dolan directs himself in a highly stylized movie. The problem is that, like Welles, Dolan’s performance isn’t as nuanced as his co-star Monia Chokri. Chokri portrays Marie as a woman on the verge, someone sexually and romantically dissatisfied. Nicolas (Niels Schneider) represents for her an opportunity for fulfillment and naturally Marie embarrassingly overcompensates. A nervous twitch is always on Chokri’s face, a bitterness towards her best friend for loving the man she loves, and the actress is intense and brilliant to watch. Xavier Dolan either put too much pressure on himself as a performer or felt too comfortable with the material (having obviously developed a vision for the film). Something about him is not entirely convincing but I need to mention that I am nitpicking. He is very good in this film, but every now and then I caught him acting, as if he was aware of himself as the actor if that makes any sense. Sometimes his gestures seem as if they were woven into the script rather than spontaneous as the character. But he has great moments. His monologue to Nicolas towards the end of the film, when he confesses his love and admits that he wants to kiss him, is a great moment. Nicholas is playful, unconventionally handsome, and good at sending mixed signals to the feuding friends. Niels Schneider is perfectly cast and performs the part well, but his character, the idolized object, isn’t given any true moment of honesty.
Throughout the film we are given excerpts of what appear to be interviews of unknown people sharing their breakup stories. We hear accounts of men leaving women, women leaving men, and women who are crushed when men love other men. These episodes act as a sort of veneer and prelude to the story of Francis, Marie and Nicholas. It’s a storytelling device we can imagine Godard having used, a quasi-documentary style meant to cement the credulity of Dolan’s story. These accounts are often funny, cathartic and performed with glee by the actors reciting the lines. My favorite is “Cindy Rosenberg” who, in her own words, knows so much about the man she loved that if only he knew, “he would enter the witness protection program... for mafia stools”. In these accounts and indeed in much of the characters’ dialogue throughout the film, we hear snippets of superficial honesty. One man mentions that, though he is over his ex-girlfriend, whenever he sees her, he becomes so flustered that all he can do is sing. Marie gives one of her “boyfriends” (more accurately fuck-buddies) a lengthy reason of why she smokes so much. However, the real honesty of the story exists in our own understanding of the situation. This is the one issue I take with the film. Xavier Dolan is a young man. His script, sophisticated as it is, reflects this fact. It’s the angst of a young gay man who is in love with his male best friend. It’s valid material but not that original, though undoubtedly important to the director. It feels as if he’s felt this. But how many times have we seen a lovelorn teen masturbating while holding an article of clothing belonging to his love? I can’t wait for Dolan to develop into a more unique and mature storyteller. With age and with his lingering attention to moments in his characters’ lives, this director can only grow stronger as an artist.
Both its English language and original French titles work. “Les amours imaginaires” translates into “Imaginary Loves”, an appropriate summation of the story. “Heartbeats” resonates more with the intensity of the passions at play. Deceptively simple, Xavier Dolan’s second feature is about that dance with love that everybody has had—a passion for someone who may or may not love you back. Told with such style, Heartbeats is the best film I’ve seen so far this year and likely to be one of the more original films of the decade.
(a.k.a. Amours imaginaires, Les)
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Stars: Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, and Niels Schneider
In French and English
Runtime: 98 minutes
Heartbeats is currently playing in select theaters across the US, including the IFC Center in New York City. It is currently available On Demand from Comcast and other service providers under "IFC In Theaters". The film should be released on DVD by IFC in the near future.
Fans eager to purchase now can visit Amazon (Canada):