A hyperstylized "Jules and Jim" update, Canadian actor-turned-filmmaker prodigy Xavier Dolan's French language romance "Heartbeats" ("Les Amour Imaginaires") is as hip as he intends it. At the same time, this chic look at a bisexual love triangle occasionally feels too entangled in its own cool maneuvers. Moving beyond the subtly believable relationships of his 2009 directorial debut, "I Killed My Mother," Dolan has apparently cultivated an obsession with cinematic overstatement -- albeit an effective one.
Within minutes of the opening scene, the core drama has been set in place. Dolan assumes the role of Francis (a nod to Truffaut?), a soft-spoken 25-year-old gay man constantly accompanied by best pal Marie (Monia Chokri). After encountering the confident traveler Nicolas (Niels Schneider) at a social gathering, the duo quickly develop a joint fixation on the carefree fellow, which obviously threatens their existing friendship. In short order, the three of them wind up in bed together, although not for the purposes that both Francis and Marie seek. In need of a place to crash, Nicolas slowly works his way into the characters' lives, operating under motives that never come into sharp focus. In Dolan's smartest move, "Heartbeats" strays from fleshing out Nicolas's personality in favor of magnifying his psychological impact on others.
Working within the boundaries of a rudimentary story, Dolan ramps up his technique and keeps it there for the duration of the running time. Although Francois Truffaut's aforementioned flight of whimsy provides the framework for the story, Dolan appears to have taken more precise cues from Pedro Almodóvar: He repeatedly turns to familiar visual trickery to inject elegance into the scenario, as if to distract from its constant redundancies. Slo-mo is a common effect. Symphonic music intentionally overstates the mood. A steady onslaught of poetic imagery, much of it imagined, often reaches overbearing proportions. (In a particularly gratuitous moment that pushes lyrical boundaries further than they should go, Francis imagines Nicolas covered in a hail of marshmallows.)
All this, and yet "Heartbeats" churns along with a sweet, engaging tone that simply never reaches its full crescendo. Individual moments convey the growing conflict between Francis and Marie while avoiding the need for a single melodramatic confrontation. The final shot impressively suggests the endless cycle of mismatched courtship. When the credits roll, however, little of the material that preceded them has much staying power.
With "I Killed My Mother," Dolan proved his remarkably polished ability, at age 20, to craft an emotionally compelling family dynamic with two core performances. Here, he takes the opposite approach, moving away from the delicate humanistic perspective to play around with sexual tension. The whole thing comes across like a fluffy exercise from a guy whose talents would be better served by artistic progress, but it's nice to know he's got a wide range; now he should find a strategy for melding the conceits of his first and second features into a unified whole. A profound, believable romance, perhaps?
In a sense, "Heartbeats" demonstrates that Dolan has a lot on his mind as a budding filmmaker. The movie is a classy rumination on the single theme that it drives home again and again, and avoids sheer redundancy only because the production remains so ably constructed. Opening with a quote by poet Alfred de Musset that "the only truth is love beyond reason," Dolan almost aggressively hovers on this outlook in every scene. As a result, it unintentionally embodies Musset's advice: "Heartbeats" lacks both credibility and a solid reason to exist. The end product is aimless love from start to finish.
criticWIRE grade: B
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. "Heartbeats" hits theaters this Friday, February 25.