As Marie, a skittishly underconfident competitor in the romantic gamesmanship of Heartbeats, the second film by Quebecois petite prodige Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri is the picture of watchful uncertainty. Her performance as a doe-eyed, tart-tongued Montreal hipster who, along with her quiffed gay BFF Francis (Dolan), becomes obsessively infatuated with golden-curled lit student Nicolas (Niels Schneider), is the best reason to see this wan comedy, which affects slow-mo, subculture airs, but is closer to a Francophone Reality Bites if that mid-‘90s bratfest had been a three on the Kinsey scale instead of a one. Initially feigning disinterest in the goofy country boy as a “self-satisfied Adonis,” both friends flatter his Audrey Hepburn fandom and affected conversational deployment of “Manichean” while trying to glean which of them is a better erotic fit for his inscrutable sexual tastes. Their passive-aggressive rivalry starts with mild snippiness (of Marie’s party dress, Francis snorts, “Not all vintage should come back”) and platonic sleepovers before cresting with a rural weekend and a flailing scuffle on fallen autumn leaves.
If three-way edging like this isn’t funny, it isn’t anything, and Dolan fractures his familiar triangle with a Greek chorus of young folks lamenting their banal scars (being dumped, engaging in helpless stalking) that add neither wisdom nor mirth, while inserting far too many reprises of a French siren’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” on the soundtrack. The tics of Dolan the actor are a bit less bothersome; his forced smiles and deadpan self-denials reach a farcical peak when he interrupts his jackoff session with Nicolas’s T-shirt to accommodate a badly timed visit by the hunk’s boho mother (Anne Dorval). Mom’s warning that her boy is “an airhead” diagnoses Heartbeats‘s crucial plot problem: Nicolas, drunk and amiable, isn’t so beautiful or otherwise compelling to merit more than a weekend’s infatuation, let alone strobe-lit visions of Michelangelo’s David or jealous slapfights. When both suitors finally clear their throats, there’s no dramatic charge because the beloved is just a foxy cipher. Dolan ironically ends the movie with his best gag, employing a cinema heartthrob to bring Francis and Marie’s longings full circle, but by then his slight sendup of lustful hesitation has succumbed to blue balls.