[Heartbeats opens Friday, February 24th at the IFC Center in Manhattan.]
When I first saw Xavier Dolan in his debut film as a director, I Killed My Mother (2009), I immediately thought that he looked like a Jean Cocteau drawing, with his impertinent nose, his big, swirly ears and the curly hair that fell down over his forehead. In that movie, which he wrote, directed, and acted in at the age of 19, the Quebec-raised Dolan seemed a kind of cinematic Raymond Radiguet, who was Cocteau's young lover and wrote a major novel, The Devil in the Flesh, before his death at age 20. Many critics saw Dolan's visual influences as a director, the borrowings from Wong Kar-Wai and Jean-Luc Godard, but his rude sensibility as a writer and as a squirrelly, antic performer are all his own. Dolan deals directly with the large feelings of youth; it's clear that he works mainly by instinct, and I hope he's able to keep throwing out movies fast.
I Killed My Mother and Dolan's second film, Heartbeats, seem to me like breaths of cold fresh air after being trapped last year in stuffy, darkened rooms, cinematically speaking. They take great pleasure in things like color, shape, and form, and their effect can be extraordinarily sensual, as in the I Killed My Mother scene where Dolan and his boyfriend do some Jackson Pollack drip painting and then make love on the floor all covered in paint. Dolan shoots the lovemaking in slow-motion fragments, and he intensifies this effect throughout Heartbeats, where nearly half the film takes place in slow motion imagery set to lush music. Some might find all this slow motion exasperating, but why not use the camera to slow life down in order to really look at it? Isn't that what most romantics would like to do? In Heartbeats, Francis (Dolan) and Marie (the extremely striking Monia Chokri) are both in love with Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and they always seems to be moving toward him slowly, trapped by their feelings but trying not to show their obvious discomfort in his presence.
Interwoven throughout Heartbeats are interviews with women and men talking about love, and these seem meant as palate cleansers and wordy contrast to the main image-conscious love triangle. Dolan leaves out things like exposition and "character development," so that it's never quite clear just how friendly Marie and Francis were before they met Nicolas (they can be extremely bitchy with each other as they pursue him), and we're also never sure why Nicolas behaves the way he does with them, leading them on and then seeming genuinely oblivious, but this openness, which could be criticized as careless, feels exciting to me precisely because it's intuitive and hasn't been labored over. Both I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats are in the tradition of the French New Wave, when directors were making a cinema of youth and pleasure unconcerned with well-made plots and diagrammed psychological significance and based instead in the gap between real and imagined feelings, which is what Heartbeats is about at its best.
The semi-campy song "Bang Bang," song by Egyptian-born Italian pop star Dalida, plays repeatedly on the soundtrack as Marie dresses like Audrey Hepburn (Nicolas's favorite movie star) and Francis gets a James Dean haircut; at one point "Bang Bang" transitions into House of Pain's early '90s hit "Jump Around" as Marie and Francis enter a party (I doubt that any sound cue will give me more simple pleasure this year). A drunken Nicolas embraces Francis and briefly sucks on his earlobe; later on, he almost kisses Marie, but he gets pulled away. To the sound of kettle drums, Nicolas's strobe-lit face is flashed at his admirers and at us in god-like glimpses, and Marie sees images of Michelangelo's David while Francis sees a series of Cocteau drawings; these subliminal associations also brought me a wild and uncomplicated pleasure, for if Dolan looks like certain Cocteau drawings, then Schneider, with his very widely spaced eyes, Roman nose and blond curls, looks exactly like certain drawings Cocteau made for his erotic novella The White Paper.
So much of the impact of Heartbeats is erotic because it always withholds sex or breaks it up into pieces; when Marie's lover covers one of her nipples with his mouth in close-up, it looks like a dream of sex far abstracted from the sex act itself. The sexiest scene is when Francis sniffs some of Nicolas's clothes and masturbates; the fetishistic idolatry of this act is heightened by the way Dolan keeps his camera focused on Francis's crazed, almost comic sniffing of the garments. He gets interrupted by Nicolas's mother (Anne Dorval, who played Dolan's mother in his first film), a dancer who talks about how showgirls used to love to cuddle Nicolas when he was a toddler. Dolan sees the humor in Francis trying to get his erection to go down before the mother comes in and then getting it back to attention for a climax that's intensified by her suggestive words; sex in Heartbeats is all in the mind, stimulated by thoughts and objects associated with the beloved, who seems even more alluring by his absence.
Dolan is remarkably free of adolescent pathos; even when he borrows from the campfire scene from My Own Private Idaho (1991), as Francis confesses his love for Nicolas, the emotions come through cleanly precisely because they're filtered and distanced through an outside influence. I'm sure Francis has seen Idaho and has been marked by it just as Dolan has (his character has a poster of River Phoenix on his bedroom wall in I Killed My Mother). I was marked by My Own Private Idaho when I was a teenager, and I also bought expensive gifts for beautiful straight guys, as Francis does in Heartbeats, and confessed my love for them, etc. And I had aimless fights with my mother, much as Dolan does in his first film. And here it all is, my past, brought back to me as vital movie objects of no small aesthetic sophistication.
I had the chance to speak with Dolan at the Mercer Hotel when he was here doing publicity for Heartbeats, and I immediately took out my copy of Cocteau's The White Paper and put it on the table between us. "What is this?" he asked, in his sharp, amusingly bratty, impatient voice, as he picked up the book and flipped through it and I pointed out several drawings that looked much like Nicolas. I asked him about the Cocteau drawings he used in Heartbeats. "One of the drawings we used is on my arm," Dolan said, very fast; he has major hair that goes up and up in waves and quivers slightly when he talks, and he sometimes has the air of a distracted, suspicious young prince traveling incognito. "I'll show it to you, if you want," he said, "if it's of any interest." I said sure, of course, and Dolan rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt to reveal a surprisingly large tattoo of a Cocteau drawing on his upper arm. "Oh, man," I offered, as I stared at the intricate tattoo; all thoughts seemed to evaporate from my head at this point.
I stumblingly asked about My Own Private Idaho. "That movie was in my mind for I Killed My Mother," Dolan said (he had rolled down his shirtsleeve at this point). "Not really for this one, though. Except for the moment at the end when my character is yelling and screaming and spitting like a cat. That was River Phoenix in the restaurant." I asked him about the hold-up on a New York release for I Killed My Mother, which was bought by Regent. "Right now, we don't know," Dolan said. "We have lost contact with the distributor, and they do not answer the phone or any kind of emails. They closed their distribution branch, I believe." He speaks English very well, with almost no accent, but you can tell that French is also his language in the tense, cutting rhythms of his words. Dolan has a new movie he's about to start shooting which stars Louis Garrel. "It's the story of a man who tells his girlfriend on his 30th birthday that he wants to become a woman, and he asks her to support him in this transition," Dolan says. "Social codes and family alienation, professional and money constrictions lead them to break up, and over ten years they desperately try to save their love."
Dolan apologized for being unable to focus on some of my movie questions. "I almost never do interviews," I told him, "because they're such unnatural situations." He nodded his head; his hair trembled at me again. "I only do them when I can't resist," I offered, then smiled and left. The way Dolan shyly but boastfully showed me the Cocteau tattoo on his arm is not something I'm likely to forget; it displayed the same kind of impudent scene-making that I admired so much in Heartbeats. He sensed that showing off his tattoo would fluster me and that I might enjoy being flustered; he wants to give pleasure and in that urge is the best kind of youthful energy, sweeping away stale conventions and gloomy, rote, time-serving cinema.
What's so invigorating to me about Dolan is that he has been able to translate his own experience as a young man into film forms and sensibilities that seem both beyond his age and completely of his age. I'm a little more than 10 years older than Dolan, and I recognize his feelings and longings, which I've never seen on screen in quite this way before, but I also feel far removed from his first dazzled experience of adulthood. I hope that the gay world and the movie world don't chew him up and spit him out as something more commercial, for Xavier Dolan is a Jean Cocteau drawing come to life and a child of Cocteau, jam-packed with all kinds of talent, and as such he should stay provocative and beautiful and creatively polyglot for as long as possible.
Dan Callahan's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.