Brazenly setting the tone, the film opens with the words of Alfred de Musset, Romantic poet, writer and lover of Georges Sand, “The only truth is love beyond reason.” Indeed, questions of truth, love and reason hover over every scene in Xavier Dolan’s 2010 film Heartbeats.
Charming and defiant, Dolan is the 28 year old French Canadian filmmaker with a steadily growing repertoire extraordinaire. This past year he won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival for his dysfunctional familial melodrama It’s Only the End of the World and in 2014 he was the joint recipient of the Jury Prize for a fiery and wholesome mother-son tale called Mommy. The triumph of these films comes as a breakthrough from earlier avant-garde pursuits. Several years prior, at 21 years old, Dolan wrote, directed, edited and acted in Heartbeats, an ambitious très chic love triangle resembling a modern-day Jules et Jim.
As Dolan’s second feature film, preceded by I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats continues in the same auteuistic arthouse spirit with a pouty and puppy-eyed Dolan playing the lead, Francis. This time he is joined by Monia Chokri as Marie, an anachronistic Audrey Hepburn inspired frosty intellectual. Within the first few minutes, the “Adonis” is identified, formally known as Nicholas, Niels Schneider, bearing supple lips and a well-chiseled nose atop golden shoulder-length curls. Francis and Marie are increasingly infatuated with this androgynous dreamboat, mesmerized by his perception and joie de vivre. The pair persistently compete for his attention, their tormented lust exposing irrational childish behaviour. Bewitching his young admirers with unnecessary overly comfortable touches, tickles, glances and embraces, Nicholas’s sexual ambiguity grows.
Breaking up the narrative and framing the film is a series of young adults talking through their experiences in love, sex, humiliation and rejection. Their vulnerability and circularity mimics the storyline of Francis and Marie. Anecdotes of bad break-ups and relationships past foreshadow the position Francis and Marie might soon find themselves.
The film is equally riddled with Dolan’s crooked smile as it is with slow-motion sequences accompanied by Bach and Wagner, creating a most poignant ambience. When it isn’t moving classical notes, the musical styling includes an Italian cover of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), Fever Ray, electronica and French pop. Bright scenes and deadpan expressions mimic Almodovar imagery, epitomized at a party resembling a music video. Pass This On, The Knife plays while Francis and Marie sulk on a couch pining over Nicholas who dances inebriated with a blue haired android. Their snarky dialogue is succeeded by a seductive montage of Nicholas on the dance floor in flickering lights, flashing fragments of Michelangelo’s David and illustrations of men making love by Jean Cocteau.
The divine Anne Dorval, a recurrent collaborator with Dolan, makes a brief appearance as Nicholas’s mother only to further Francis’s confusion with encouraging remarks, “You are a cutie”, “Nicholas was right about you”, “Heartbreaker, that’s you”. Either completely self-involved or lacking any sort of emotional aptitude, Nicholas appears incognizant to the whole thing. On this note, the original French translation of the title appears far more befitting, “Les Amours Imaginaires”, or “Imaginary Lovers”.
Despite Dolan’s own pretension and flamboyance, Francis and Marie are inherently appealing easily relatable characters. Awareness and empathy towards their plight transpires, though only to this extent. Further depth or character development is buried beneath Dolan’s cinematic experiments. In using poetic imagery, much of it imagined, composed and presented in a dream-like way, Dolan borderlines cliché and exaggeration. The sweet and endearing tone persists throughout the tale without ever reaching a full climax, diverting audience attention and post-analysis to the film’s conceptualization and technique.
Amusing and absorbing, Heartbeats is imbued with emotions and sensations, captivating visuals and sounds. In a style fused with the French New Wave sentiment of Truffaut and the kitschy aesthetics of Almodovar, Dolan injects his scenes with artistry and craft, bringing to life an otherwise redundant and ubiquitous story, the convoluted love triangle. Ultimately, the film is a satire on the follies of young love and lust, exploiting the foolish ways in which we behave in pursuit of the tokens of our affection. Synchronously, Dolan exposes his wisdom and his youth, creating a fertile hyper-reality of unrequited love, unearthing his cinematic potential.