Film Review: Heartbeats

This sort-of romantic triangle, directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, makes an affecting, definitive study of youthful obsessiveness in the post-aughts.

In Heartbeats, whose French title, Les Amours Imaginaires (Imaginary Loves), is far more telling, 23-year-old auteur Xavier Dolan spins a tale of youthful romantic obsession which, while ridden with clichés, will remind many viewers of their first, struggling steps towards love. Francis (Dolan) is young, gay and best friends with Marie (Monia Chokri). One day they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a gorgeous blond angel of a boy and both fall instantly for him. This shared passion affects their friendship, which turns into a seriously dangerous game of one-upmanship to gain Nicolas' affection.

Dolan, who not only wrote and directed but also edited and designed the production and costumes, is quite the prodigy, as this film and his previous one, I Killed My Mother, both won prizes at Cannes. Although it's easy to see how heavily influenced he is by Wong Kar Wai in particular, he has a strong, purely cinematic vision of his own and a knack for tartly observant dialogue. He's undeniably gifted, with a positive genius for music choices—e.g., the use of Dalida's “Bang Bang” (suggested to him by Chokri) as the theme for Francis' and Marie's incessantly unsuccessful cruising is both droll and devastingly effective.

The youthful abrasiveness of Dolan’s approach, as well as his characters' pervasive narcissism, not to mention obnoxiously recurring sequences of various anonymous young adults insistently recounting their own romantic travails ("I checked my e-mail 100 times") to the camera, make the film off-putting at first. But halfway through, I was pulled into the all-too-familiar obsessiveness of the premise—there's a smashing scene of a besotted Francis watching Nicolas dance, intercut with fluttering images of Michelangelo's David and Cocteau's homoerotic sketches (both iconic pinnacles of male desire) that has a breathtaking brio. A wryly suggestive encounter between Francis and Nicolas' mother (Anne Dorval, terrific) tells you more about the mysterious Nico than you ever learn from the guy himself. And I was absolutely delighted by the ending, which packs an emotional wallop as well as sending you out with an ironic smile, largely due to the cameo involvement of actor/heartthrob Louis Garrel.

Nicolas' admiration for Audrey Hepburn convinces the hopeful Francis that he plays for his sexual team, while Marie takes this as cue to gussy herself up in all manner of sub-Breakfast at Tiffany's get-ups. These sartorial decisions are more tragic than chic, however, as Chokri is a big, horsey lass, with little of the gamine about her. She works away like a reincarnated Bette Davis, puffing endless cigarettes, spouting bitchy bile to an all-too-receptive Francis about other girls who approach Nicolas' eyeline, and makes a striking anti-heroine. Dolan, sporting a quite amazing pompadour, invests Francis with a manic passion, scooting around Montreal for gifts for his beloved, and gets a rapid, nasty, updated screwball-comedy performance rhythm going with Chokri. With a tousled halo of golden curls, Schneider has his own hair act going on, and is perfection as the maddeningly inchoate object of their affection.