Maybe Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort Heartbeats hit me at exactly the right time in life. Or maybe it’s a certifiable masterpiece from a filmmaker who has no business being this wise at such a young age; I won’t know for sure until a second viewing this upcoming February, when the film will receive its theatrical release. But it’s immediately clear Dolan’s stylized and profound musings on heartache, rejection, and malaise represent a gigantic leap forward for the 21-year-old Canadian director after his promising but problematic debut I Killed My Mother. While that film frantically searches for relief under the maddening aesthetic stresses of Dolan’s true-to-life suffering, Heartbeats brilliantly clarifies the young man’s obsession with the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-wai by invoking the subtle humanism of François Truffaut. These influences harmoniously merge to form an invigorating and yearning auteurist perspective, a combination of texture and grace that reveals Dolan to be an observer of slow-motion time capsules, evocative color schemes, and subtle slides down the emotional rabbit hole.
Not surprisingly, Heartbeats opens in rhythm, with revealing interview confessionals from three separate heartbroken souls recounting memories from past relationships. They fight back against sadness with devilish honesty, discussing contradictions of gender roles, faulty expectations, and finally the ongoing trauma that lasts long after love fades away. Their ripe words act as intertitles for Dolan’s core narrative love triangle, a breezy parallel downfall of a straight girl and a gay man in love with the same clueless friend. After Dolan stuns us with the aforementioned stinging jab of faux realism, the film cuts to a smoky house party of style incarnate, where youthful conversation rests alongside idle flirting. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) simultaneously chop vegetables in the kitchen, the sound of their knives immediately connecting the film’s title with a palpable audible hum. Both friends spot an attractive fresh face at the table, a blond curly-haired “Adonis” named Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and their mutual attraction toward him becomes the film’s driving force for character and motivation.
Heartbeats follows Marie and Francis’s parallel pursuits of Nicolas, a trajectory that begins with both denying they’re even interested in the first place. But Dolan’s nimble camera, often framing the two in close-up, in side angle, or completely in back profile, shows the building passion each desperately wants to unleash with their new crush. Of course, this fleeting denial gradually evolves into an obvious pattern of attention, the pair giving Nicolas competing presents, creating not-so-accidental encounters, and making themselves mainstays in his party life. The film’s most stunning sequence comes at the apex of this pattern, when Francis and Marie, each dressed up in 1960s retro clothing a la James Dean and Audrey Hepburn, enter Nicolas’s birthday party to the rambunctious roar of House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” Struck not only by the clash in tones but also the complete dismemberment of expectations, Dolan’s slow-mo tracking shot hauntingly etches dashed hopes into the dank mise-en-scène, the pair’s dreams of a classic vintage love affair momentarily destroyed by modern-day pop culture.
Despite their constant presence in Nicolas’s life, Marie and Francis remain on the sidelines of his guise. To offset this numbing emotional indifference, the pair each lowers their standards to find individual lust, and Dolan brilliantly crosscuts the parallel interludes through a depressingly evocative slow-mo montage. These shadowy liaisons are drenched in red and green hues, neon-tinted fever dreams of compromise that situate Francis and Marie within the same spectrum of longing. Finally, when Nicolas casually invites both Francis and Marie on a day trip to the countryside, the underlining tensions and aggravations spew out in a classic wrestling match on the side of a rural street. As Francis and Marie unravel together, Nicolas silently watches from afar, an outside object that never comes close to understanding his significant impact on this particularly inclusive melodrama. Dolan paints the last third of his film in moments of reflection, setting his patented stylizations to the side and focusing on the subtle burn of his character’s interior conflict. Francis and Marie have made their beds, now they must sleep in them, and this realization once again takes on a parallel meaning.
Maybe the most impressive and mature aspect of Heartbeats, and its most illuminating narrative surprise, is the affirming revelation that unfolds in the film’s final party sequence. Francis and Marie, dressed in matching red outfits that celebrate both their friendship and heartache, shun the expected repeat cycles of romantic comedy and move on to the next potentially disastrous entanglement. In one glance, Dolan transitions the emotional power of the gaze to the hands of his protagonists. It seems life experience can create new growth in even the most damaged human goods, and this final decision to live instead of pout is an intoxicatingly brave flourish. For Dolan, his characters are no longer slaves to their shared pain and anguish, choosing instead to keep fighting the good fight and find the closest thing to a soul mate one can hope for in this constantly churning whirlpool of romantic uncertainty.
AFI Fest 2010 ran from November 4 – 11. For more information, click here.