Director’s visual style gives pulse to ‘Heartbeats’: Dolan brings fresh look to familiar story of lust, love
I’ll often flip through an issue of Vanity Fair or GQ and stop at an ad that makes me wonder how this would work as a film. The photo tells a story that’s beside the point of the product: “These guys do all their yachting in bikini briefs.’’ Or: “You know what goes really well with this tuxedo? A tiger.’’
Xavier Dolan must know what I mean. His second film, “Heartbeats,’’ could have begun as one of those ads. A young man and a young woman sit in a Montreal coffee shop with their eyes on the same T-shirted dreamboat. The good news is that the movie advertises Dolan’s delirious visual talent. He transforms that slim premise — two guys, a girl, and a city — into a pageant of slow-motion promenades and longing glances. It’s true that if his main characters drift down the street or across a room once at 10 frames per second, they must do it 11,000 times. But all the dramatic protraction gets at both a heaviness of romantic desire and emotional viscosity.
The scenario is common enough. Indeed, Dolan — whose 2009 debut was the gimmicky marvel “I Killed My Mother’’ — mixes into the proceedings non-narrative recollections of other people’s near-fatal attractions. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Frank (Dolan) are two friends who don’t know whether Nico (Niels Schneider) wants her or him. They don’t ask, he doesn’t tell. What ensues is a series of increasingly fraught rendezvous, most of which Nico initiates, that pit Marie and Frank against each other.
It’s obvious enough how untidily this will end, but Dolan turns 22 later this month, and the film’s ardor resides not so much in Marie’s or Frank’s pursuit of Nico (or Nico’s pursuit of them) but in the freshness of Dolan’s filming of that pursuit. These are old situations that feel new to him. Anyway, the tragic and amazing thing about attraction is how it brainwashes you into believing that’s all there is. The French title for “Heartbeats’’ is “Imaginary Lovers,’’ which feels more apt, since it better gets at the willful delusion that lust provokes.
You do wish that Nico’s interest in Marie and Frank would make them more self-confident with him rather than undermining and catty with each other. But pathology undergirds these three. Nico is a Narcissus who happens to look like a Renaissance-era Adonis, and the outrageous final shot is both a knowing blast of movie-star love and proof that these two might be symbiotically sick.
Dolan uses style to get at the rather shallow way that wanting someone can make you want to be someone else. Marie and Frank are different breeds of clotheshorse that, upon discovering Nico’s enthusiasm for two Hollywood stars, proceed to turn themselves into versions of each. When Frank hands a chic old stylist a photo of James Dean, slow-motion contributes a hilarious lick of wisdom to her avalanche of an eye-roll: Not again. Obviously, these characters aspire to be old souls. So does their creator. But his interest in building homages and allusions into his filmmaking is funny and refreshingly unpretentious. Even when Marie and Nico are trashing bad theater with a word like “Manichean,’’ they do so with comic gusto and irony.
The imaginary lovers do things like go away for a cottage-bound weekend and play games in the forest the way people do in some French New Wave movies. If Francois Truffaut thought “Dangerous Liaisons’’ was in any way a comedy, it’d be “Heartbeats.’’ There are also licks of John Hughes, Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-wai, Gregg Araki, yes, those magazine ads, and whatever else happens to have affixed itself to Dolan’s cultural flypaper.
Often these ads would make good music videos, since that’s what long stretches of some glossy, richly styled movies turn into. But sometimes with a gifted filmmaker, one who has a good eye for color and detail, someone with a sense of fashion — a Wong or Pedro Almodóvar or Spike Lee, say — skyscraping style can exhilarate. Dolan does that, too.
His movie doesn’t not make you want to shop for old armchairs or new French-Canadian electronica. But like Wong, Almodóvar, and, at his best, Lee, Dolan’s sense of style is emotional. I pray that age doesn’t loosen his grip on modernity or eccentricity, that he doesn’t harden into archness. The movies need Dolan’s heat and verve. They need a young director who doesn’t fear sex or pain or being young. They need his cheeky, shameless art.