In the follow-up to his debut feature, I Killed My Mother, Xavier Dolan fully embraces the stylistic features he employed in his first film, only this time to better effect. In a nod to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, along with hint of Almodóvar, Dolan has created a love story that is unashamedly stylish and superficial. Based on a line by poet Alfred de Musset, “The only truth is love beyond reason,” Heartbeats, or to give it its more telling French title, Les amours imaginaires (‘The Imaginary Love’), concerns two best friends who jeopardise their friendship following the arrival of a beautiful and enigmatic boy whose looking for a place to stay.
Marie (Monia Chokri) is an Audrey Hepburn fanatic who strives to emulate the retro glamour of her heroine, albeit with a contemporary curled lip and slightly sneering raised eyebrow. Marie is best friends with Francois, a softly-spoken gay man in his early twenties, who, like Marie, strives for chic-ness and perfect hair.
After meeting the angelically androgynous Nicolas, with his soft blond curls and bright blue eyes, the pair compete for his attention whilst struggling to maintain a veneer of niceness. When the trio take a trip to the country, the rivalry between Francois and Marie spills over into a fight. Have they ruined their friendship in their quest for Nicolas’ unattainable affection?
Whilst I Killed My Mother was intended to be an emotional drama with occasional flourishes of style, Heartbeats is wholly stylish and deliberately lacking emotion. Here, the visual techniques Dolan applied to his first film are launched full throttle at the audience to much greater effect. One stand out scene is when Marie and Francois are getting ready to meet up with Nicolas. As they each put the finishing touches to their appearance, the soundtrack is filled with Dalida’s version of ‘Bang Bang (You Shot Me Down)’ and the mise-en-scène takes the form of a colourfully glossy advert. The camera then films them in close-up as they swing their hips determinedly like models sashaying down the street, all the while cutting back and forth between the two of them in order to develop the rivalry between the two.
Dolan once again demonstrates his keen ability for sharp, humorous dialogue.
Also, as with I Killed My Mother, Dolan once again demonstrates his keen ability for sharp, humorous dialogue. Monia Chokri as Marie is particularly good at delivering this as her flawless vintage exterior can barely conceal the icy undertones to her conversations with Francois. When Francois shows her the expensive orange jumper he has bought Nicolas for his birthday, Marie smiles and says, “Orange is a good colour,” before pointedly adding, “Don’t know about fluorescent orange, though.”
Another interesting aspect of the film is the fact that character of Nicolas is so enigmatic and ambiguous. He never reveals anything about himself and yet Marie and Francois fall deeper in love with him as the film progresses. With his almost cherubic looks, they cast him in the role of a deity and he is the subject of many a swooning close-up, but he is ultimately unknowable and untouchable. This is most apparent during his birthday party when Marie and Francois jealously watch him dancing with someone else. He dances close but never reaches out; the pulsating club soundtrack creates an intensity that is matched by the flashing lights which obscure him intermittently, as if to suggest that he will never be fully knowable.
It’s also never totally apparent as to whether Nicolas is deliberately toying with their feelings or whether he is so self-absorbed that he is completely unaware. When, like Jules, Jim and Catherine before them, Francois, Marie and Nicolas visit the country in an attempt to escape the restrictions of everyday life, their jealousy and insecurities come to the fore and they physically fight. However, Nicolas just watches impassively whilst dragging on a cigarette until he decides to leave, cutting off contact with them, much to their distress.
Whilst Heartbeats is undoubtedly stylish, this is not enough to sustain interest in the film, and although the characters are deliberately superficial, this means that they also lack the emotion required to convey a love triangle. In addition, the film frequently cuts to a series of ‘confessional’ scenes in which various friends of the protagonists talk about their failed romances. This is obviously intended to provide some depth to the theme of love within the film, but they don’t really fit in with the rest of the film and aren’t interesting enough to be anything other than a distraction.
Heartbeats looks exquisite and is fun to watch, and has an effective and engaging soundtrack. However, the film is thin on plot and gets swallowed up by its own sense of style. But perhaps the biggest problem with this love triangle is that when the characters are that shallow, it’s impossible to care about the outcome.
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