Heartbeats, Xavier Dolan’s second feature film, is a realistic glance into the lives of wandering twenty-somethings. The twenty-one-year-old Quebec born actor turned filmmaker entered the scene in 2009 with the French language feature I killed My Mother. Heartbeats, also French language, falls short of his first film however, the technical aspects of his filmmaking have greatly improved.
Heartbeats chronicles the seemingly complex bisexual love triangle between three friends, Marie (Monia Chokri), Francis (Xavier Dolan), and Nicolas (Niels Schneider who looks almost exactly like French actor, Louis Garrel). While at a party, Marie and Frankie (Francis) notice Nicolas, a youthful traveler who is a dead ringer for a Greek Adonis. Marie and Frankie soon develop a suggestive relationship with Nicolas which threatens their own friendship as each of them become completely infatuated with him. The three of them share a bed together, but Marie and Frankie’s sexual desire for Nicolas is never satisfied. The film delves deeply into the notions of jealousy and centers on the cliche, “three is a crowd”.
The actors have a natural chemistry that reads well through the screen. Marie is beautiful and dresses akin to Anna Karina and other New Wave women (a possible homage to Godard). Frankie’s outward presentation is bold but he is shy and introverted. Nicolas is tan and beautiful. His demeanor is warm and yet he seems completely ignorant of the fact that he is the central object of desire for the other two characters. It is uncertain whether his coyness is intentional or simply a part of the dynamic of his friendship with Marie and Frankie. This leads to sexual ambiguity of his character which lies at the core of the narrative and if nothing else is its strength.
The film takes frequent breaks from the main narrative to shift into talking head interviews that detail failed relationships and unrequited love. This technique is perhaps another homage to Godard, especially in his late 1960s era with 2 or 3 Things I know About Her. The discourse of the subjects in the interviews foreshadow the failure of the relationship between Marie, Frankie, and Nicolas. Despite the creative intention, the technique is disappointing as the dialogue proves to be nothing but trivial and shallow.
Although the characters and dialogue are naive, it works for the purpose of the film. The images are relatable for those who are in the midst of the coffee and cigarette culture, aimlessly searching for themselves. The vintage stores and cafes are familiar settings for brooding and pondering about the dilemmas of life and love.
In spite of the fact that the dialogue and narrative themselves appear without meaning and emotional depth, the camera work and cinematic tropes stand on their own. Dolan uses primary colored filters and slow motion filming to illustrate individual despondent sex scenes between Marie and Francis and their prospective partners none of whom are Nicolas. Dolan primarily uses close ups for the duration of the film to highlight the male/female body and draw attention to the character’s facial features and expressions. The majority of the filming is handheld which furthers the realism of the film.
Apart from the camera work, the soundtrack of the film is also very well done. The soundtrack is amplified during slow motion scenes of the characters walking through the streets and preparing for their outings with a Italian version of the Nancy Sintra hit, “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. There is a notable party scene in which Marie and Francis obsessively gaze at a drunk Nicolas flailing his arms around to “Pass this On” by The Knife. Their sullen faces are drowned out by the flashing strobe light and the song. This creates a certain ambiance that develops the disheartening nature of the film.
Though the narrative of Heartbeats is a bit rudimentary it is worth seeing for stylistic purposes. Dolan is lucky to have begun making features early in his life. There is always room for improvement and hopefully we will see good things from him in the future.