Quebec director Xavier Dolan's follow-up to his precocious art-house hit, I Killed My Mother, is a sweet and creamy, puffed-up dessert of a film. An opening quote from Alfred De Musset that "the only truth is love beyond reason" raises expectations that there might be a few mad scenes or attempted suicides, but like much else in the film, the quotation is just a tease. Heartbeats is a light, slight, wry look at the beautiful and besotted, which gets away with not having much to say, thanks to its charm and excessive good looks.
Though less of a singular accomplishment than his debut film, Heartbeats shows Dolan developing as a stylist who wears not only his influences (Pedro Almodovar, Wong Kar-Wai) but also his heart on his sleeve. Anyone who has ever suffered the pangs of romantic infatuation should feel at least a few moments of recognition.
Dolan, who has added editing and costume design to his directing, writing and starring credits, plays Francis, a boyish gay man whose best friend is the severe and stylish Marie (Monia Chokri). They're both cool outsiders, who enjoy their private hipster jokes (she styles herself as a cross between Godard muse Anna Karina and Audrey Hepburn) and hold themselves in a kind of pained superiority to the ordinary bores around them.
Then they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), an ambiguously flirtatious hunk with golden curls, they both fall hard for him while pretending to be indifferent to his appeal. Nicolas seems warmly receptive to their advances but also elusive. The story focuses on the impact he has on Francis and Marie. Shortly after they meet, the three of them end up in bed together - though alas, only to sleep: Nicholas needs a place to crash and nestles comfortably between Marie and Francis.
After that, the game is on as the two friends engage in a bitchy competition of expensive gift-giving, faking chance encounters and other gambits to win Nicholas. All this culminates in a trip to the country with both Francis and Marie hoping for exclusive access to their beloved's bed.
Often, Heartbeats feels like a film where not much happens (though very prettily), and all of it is accompanied to music from the overwrought (Wagner) to the campy (Dalida's version of Sonny Bono's Bang Bang). As a filmmaker, Dolan is drunk on technique, with frequent use of slow-motion, odd camera angles, scenes bathed in coloured light and perhaps too many moments of long eye-lashes lowering onto perfectly sculpted cheeks. Not only is Nicolas envisaged as Michelangelo's David, there's a scene in which he appears, shirtless, in a storm of marshmallows.
By now, a dose of Alka-Seltzer is in order, which Dolan is smart enough to provide. Heartbeats comes back down to earth in a series of mock-documentary clips, strung through the film, that feature more ordinary-looking young men and women, talking about their romantic humiliations and repeating the film's theme: Beauty is a cruel partner but a hard one to deny.
- Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
- Starring: Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri and Niels Schneider
Heartbeats screens at Bell Lightbox until Sept. 29. Visit tiff.net or call 416-968-FILM for showtimes, ticket prices, box office hours and location.