Xavier Dolan is riding an enviable wave that filmmakers twice his age (or more) would covet. His critically acclaimed debut feature, “J’ai tué ma mère” (I Killed My Mother) debuted in Cannes last year (picking up three awards along the way) and will soon get a U.S. theatrical release. Now, he’s back with his second feature, “Heartbeats” (Les amours imaginaires), which was just acquired here in Cannes by IFC Films for a U.S. release.
At only 21, the good looking Quebecois filmmaker has caught the attention of film industry insiders at home and abroad over the past year on the festival circuit with his first feature. A child star growing up, Dolan is no stranger to attention, though he claims a distaste for promotion. Still, he seems very aware of his image and deliberate in how he presents himself. Still navigating the growing attention he is getting as a filmmaker, on occasion he understandably exhibits contrasting characteristics. He is at once an ideal subject for an interview, but also off-putting. He is surprisingly forthcoming and insightful, while also guarded. At one moment warm and polite and at another reserved and distant. Contrary to what some of his observers say, he says he is not out for the fame thing.
“The harsh reality with this job and this undertaking or directing thing is that only the creative [aspects] are stimulating to me,” he told indieWIRE Tuesday on a veranda overlooking the Croisette and the Mediterranean. “The promotion, the interviews and hearing myself say such repetitive and redundant things don’t have any exhaulting charm. I will do 500 – 600 interviews for this film. It’s only the beginning now. Creating something and having the feeling of working with your own hands is what [I find rewarding]. Talking is not art anymore. It’s promoting art.” Continuing he added, “Since I do movies out of ignorance, I don’t think so much about my movies until I’m asked about them.”
Dolan explained that for him, making movies is a result of his inability (or ignorance) at mastering love and other areas of life’s challenges, and though he says he doesn’t rely on film as an outlet for his personal frustrations, he appears to rely on his creative side to alleviate perceived personal shortcomings. “My relationship with [film] is like people in a married relationship. The belief that love is reciprocal. It’s a way for me to love and be loved.”
Dolan’s art and his life are inextricably linked. He told iW that he’s inspired by his own experiences and uses them as a basis for his work. His complex relationship with his mother guided him to write, direct and star in “I Killed My Mother” (which was Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration this year) and his inability to comandeer the art of relationships inspired “Heartbeats,” which he wrote on a train in 2009 as he traveled to the Toronto International Film Festival from his hometown, Montreal.
“There is, of course, a certain part of fiction and romance [in my work],” he added, “But I stick with an empirical writing.”
A stylish but mostly straightforward love triangle story, “Heartbeats” centers on close friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri). At lunch one day, the pair meet Nicolas, a suave, playful and irresistably hot new arrival in Montreal who quickly emerges as the object of their desire. Nicolas becomes a part of their clique and each opportunity for hanging out entrenches their fantasies of winning his affections. As their obsession grows, their once solid friendship becomes unhinged as they compete for Nicolas’ attention. The story illustrates the frailty of human relationships when they clash with personal desire.
“I was inspired by many different love affairs and rejections that I’ve been involved with,” Dolan said. “[This story] was always clear with me. I’m a love absolutist. There is a strong dichotomy between naive hopes dreaming of love and all the acidity and naivety I retrospectively [realized] about those relationships. Love turns wrong in the end for me.”
Friendship also holds complexity and Dolan explores the intricacies inherent in those relationships in his new film. When asked to what extent power dynamics and how people relate to one another as friends informed the dynamic he created between Francis and Marie in “Heartbeats,” Dolan – who seems to speak comfortably in English – nevertheless said his English wasn’t good enough to elaborate and jumped up to grab press notes for the film, promptly reading with gusto a paragraph about their relationship:
“In friendship, as in love, there will always be a power play as subtle and elusive as the contexts in which it is played out. A couple cannot achieve balance without a dominant figure. And where one is dominant, the other is already bowing in submission. Submission and Francis go hand in hand. Discreet, timid, and a man of few but precise words, everything points to the palpable vulnerability of a character swathed in shadows and sweetness. That being said, however, Marie’s mild-mannered accessory is no toothless lapdog. If he caresses her with the one hand while backing out of an invitation to the theatre thereby leaving her free to her own devices, he later follows up with a smack from the other:
“Where the hell have you been?” he bluntly asks when Nicolas and Marie walk into the cafe where he is eating with friends. “We’ve just left the theatre,” explains Nicolas totally unaware of the game in play. “Oh, the theatre… I’d forgotten it,” Francis replies. Basically, these two adversaries who appear so different thoroughly deserve each other. Upper hand, underhand…do they love to fight, or fight to love?
After he’s finished reading, the subject of Cannes comes up and again Dolan seems conflicted by being here and the attention it inevitably presents.
“It’s an honor, of course,” he explained, “But, I couldn’t say I’m doing this to please myself or to have a good time. I’m doing it to be loved by certain people and show love for them and please them as they please me. I don’t do this out of ambition or a strategy to gain fame…I don’t want to reduce my cinema to just some kind of liberation.”
“It’s a great passion,” he concluded, “And there’s a romance in this.”