Xavier Dolan’s stylishly appealing and aesthetically well-informed portrait of the infatuation/obsession of youth and the problems that arise from an immature and self-centered M.O. is a thoroughly refreshing take on a classic theme. We’re all no doubt familiar with stories of young people who experience deeply felt romantic fantasies and then form odd and — from a distant enough perspective — foolish, quite often pointless love triangles. While novels, poems, and plays concerning the folly of youth and the desire (compulsion?) to possess some fantastically beautiful ‘other’ are rich with cultural import, I feel that film above all other media is most capable of capturing the palpable, visceral, and emotional nature of young lust and obsession (cf. Truffaut, Godard, Hughes, et al.). With Heartbeats, Mr. Dolan has carved out a spot for himself among such well-respected company.
Maybe in part because he’s still quite a young man himself, Dolan has rendered an intimate, consummately detailed expression of the genuine longing and self-doubt that, to be quite honest, are really the only aspects that make his characters worth paying attention to. Dolan knows this, and so Heartbeats’ chief concern is the shared affection of two friends for a perfectly beautiful young blond-haired man. At the outset, we’re introduced to the three of them at a hip Montreal dinner party — you know, the kind where everyone’s showing off at least a little. Franics (Dolan) and Maria (Monia Chokri) dismiss Nicolas (Niels Schneider) as good looking but ultimately unrefined and not worth their time, them being the hip young elites of civilized Canada and all. The ensuing war over Nicolas that takes place between the the old friends is as excruciatingly polite as it is pregnant with emotion. With neither willing to admit to the other that they actually have feelings for this oblivious Adonis, a painful comedy of errors plays out that touches on some of the more universal feelings associated with a super-big crush.
There’s an interesting syncopation taking place between quasi-Kubrickian detached amusement and overtly heartfelt nostalgic sentimentality in this film, the director moving from one to another as he sees fit. The attention he pays to the minutiae of his characters, establishing very central truths about them through seemingly very little effort, is the true mark of his genius. Dolan proves himself to be quite adept and thoughtful through the choices he makes with this film. Whereas a character’s nervous tick might be played for its quirk-factor by many directors, Dolan seamlessly weaves the body language of his characters into their dialogue, which, although at some times a bit too stylized for my tastes, never devolves into babble. A stylistic device that appears several times throughout the film is Dalida’s Italian cover of Sonny Bono’s classic “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” This leitmotif imbues Heartbeats with a distinctly ambivalent mood, which, like the cover itself, tends toward the melodramatic a little too much and just a little too often.
In his first film, I Killed My Mother, Dolan established himself as a unique talent, a new voice that, though a bit forced and derivative, still had something interesting to contribute to the world of film. With Heartbeats, his second, he has assuaged any fears that he was a mere enfant terrible flash-in-the-pan one-off with too much of his parents’ money. Dolan is a true auteur, and with his third film, the forthcoming Laurence Anyways, he’s attempting to craft another subtle and complex narrative about human relationships, this time about the effect upon the union between a man and a woman after the man decides to change his sex. I’m on the edge of my seat.