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Love and its delusions was the theme of two different films this past weekend from Woody Allen and newcomer Xavier Dolan, directors at opposite ends of their careers.

The fighters:

In this corner, we have Woody Allen, 74, American icon, with more than 40 films since 1966, including such undisputed knockouts as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Strengths: Fast and productive, making a film a year, in various genres, but best known as champion of the bittersweet comedy.

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The young contender: Xavier Dolan, age 21. Québécois-Canadian, a multithreat writer-director-star in the Allen tradition. After last year's Directors' Fortnight champ, J'ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother) he's back in Cannes's official selection with love triangle drama, Heartbeats. Specialty: Fast-learner, also in the bittersweet comedy division.

Round one: The Films

Woody Allen's ironic farce, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (screening out of competition), focuses on a London-based family. Alfie ( Anthony Hopkins), dumps his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones), and takes up with call girl Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Subsequently, Helena has a mental breakdown and begins seeing a psychic, who offers her only rosy predictions.

Helena's daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), has a crush on her gallery boss (Antonio Banderas), but is married to formerly promising novelist, Roy (Josh Brolin) who is smitten with Dai ( Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto), a beauty he spies through his apartment window.

Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats (the French title, Les Amours Imaginaires, is much better), follows the Quebec wunderkind's celebrated debut with a story of how passion hurts when we idealize the ones we adore. A sensitive young man, Francis (writer-director Dolan), and his acerbic best friend, Marie (Monia Chokri), fall for the same "self-satisfied Adonis" Nicolas (Niels Schneider), which puts painful strains on their relationship.

Judge's score card

For Allen, not a knockout, but the canny veteran holds his ground. Allen's familiar theme - that only the deluded can be happy, so why not laugh about it? - is made fresh by a strong cast, led by Hopkins, who is both grand and pathetic as the old man trying to hang on to his youth.

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Dolan, the upstart, relied on raw emotion and a willingness to try anything, leading to a few indulgent montages before a poignant ending. The camera loves the androgynous faces of the young stars (including the director's) and humorous interstitial monologues by other actors leaven the intensity.

Behind the films, two philosophers

Allen's film begins with a narrator paraphrasing Shakespeare, that life is "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." At Saturday's post-film press conference, Allen confirmed that pretty much sums up his own view. Nothing about him, including his libido, it seems, is mellowing.

"This is my philosophy and has always been my perspective on life since I was a child ... that life is a painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience and the only way to be happy is to tell yourself some lies."

On aging: "I found it a lousy deal .... It's a bad business getting older, and I would advise you not to do it."

On no longer appearing in his own films:

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"For years, I played the romantic lead, and then I couldn't play it any longer, because I got too old to play it, and it's just no fun not playing the guy who gets the girl ... You can imagine how frustrating it is when I do these movies with Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Watts, and the other guys get them. And I'm the director ... that old guy over there is the director. I don't like that. I like being the one that sits across from them in the restaurant and looks in their eyes and lies to them."

On death: "My relationship with death remains the same. I am very strongly against it."

Dolan's Heartbeats begins with a quote from the poet and dramatist Alfred de Musset: "The only truth is love beyond reason."

Sunday afternoon at the Canada Pavilion, Dolan reflected on his return match with the Cannes film festival.

"Last year in the Directors' Fortnight was more friendly and welcoming, though less prestigious. It's another vibe," he said. Asked how much Heartbeats, and the de Musset quote, reflects his own artistic philosophy, he frowns, asks the question to be repeated, and finally answers.

As a colleague observed, he seems capable of having mood swings within a sentence: "Emotion is always important to me. I'm young, I don't know anything. I follow an instinct for a certain truth and authenticity. The characters in this movie all want the same thing. They're love absolutists, in an anachronistic way. Their only goal is to be loved."

And the winner is

Ref calls a split decision: Love puts you on the ropes, knocks you down, then picks you up again. Whatever age you are, a knockdown is just a prelude to another round.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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