That’s right, every hipster should see “Heartbeats”. Nay, everyone under the age of 35 should see this movie. If you get a discount at the opera for not being middle-aged, you need to take the time out of your busy and possibly ironic life and go buy a ticket to this wonderful piece of high French Canadian hipster romance.
Ok, that’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. But in my defense, actor/writer/director/wunderkind Xavier Dolan makes that argument for me, even in the very opening of the film. First he gives the audience an epigraph: “The only truth is love beyond reason,” – Alfred de Musset. Perhaps it’s a bit too much in the way of eccentric flair, a bit too much in the way of literary grandeur, but luckily Dolan does not stop there.
Before the film even introduces the actual protagonists, it presents a discussion among friends, a quasi-group interview of some young Montrealers discussing life and love. This is a crucial framing device for the story of Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan), a story which is presented to us not as a single stand-alone love triangle but rather just one of many stories of love’s illusions that permeate this world of youth. One could even say that the central narrative serves as a fable, lushly articulated but nonetheless part of a larger community falling in and out love. These group-interviews occasionally return, offering even more of a sense of what love can be and isn’t in this complex but alluringly styled world that Dolan has illuminated.
This fable is one of passion and fragility. Marie and Francis, twenty-something hipsters whose closeness is continually articulated by side-by-side shots from behind, fall for the same man: the “self-satisfied Adonis,” Nicolas (Niels Schneider). It doesn’t quite work out as planned, from either perspective.
And boy is this filmic land of desire and longing stylized, though Dolan manages to impressively retain a great deal of composure and justification in the face of such a tendency toward the luxuriant. The slow motion he uses is a perfect example. In most movies, slo-mo is generally considered a bit of a vice, to be used sparingly if at all for fear of creating an insufferably unsubtle tone. Here, however, it is somehow entirely fitting. A walk to the café slowed and zoomed to the forms of Marie and Francis as they flaunt their well-primped attributes in anticipation, only accentuates desire, a drive that seldom seems to fit into the standard limits of time both on film and off. And of course this is only possible with the help of the film’s soundtrack of boldly aching pop songs.
The costumes, from Marie’s retro dresses to Francis’s oversized shirts and the thick-rimmed glasses on the storytellers, add not only to the feel that this is a specific interconnected community but also accentuate the larger-than-life feel of the central plot. Even the hair takes the film’s aesthetic to another level; Marie’s updos are exceptionally tight and composed, while the curls of both Francis and Nicolas occasionally seem too independent for their own roots. There is rich purple fabric everywhere, love scenes take place under a flood of green or red light, as in a photographer’s darkroom, and there are walls, paintings, umbrellas, hair and pants of every conceivable color and pattern. This is an eccentric and bold world of style.
Are the vibrant colors and music of the two lovelorn protagonists too much? I would argue that no, it all fits. Aesthetically, this is not an acid trip, but rather simply a milieu of distinct taste. Moreover, there is yet another relationship with the interspersed monologues of amour. From one angle, the framing device gives the central story an air of fable, helping the audience see it as yet another tale from a youthful community caught up in a tangle of passion. But at the same time the audaciously styled narrative of Marie and Francis takes this common occurrence, the unfulfilled love story to be told around the dinner table, and raises it to the level of desire and longing that accompanies every amorous tumble. “Heartbeats” is a complete work of exploration into relationships amongst the twenty-somethings of our time, love both ubiquitous and at the same time theatrical.
On another note, I would be remiss if I didn’t go into a bit more detail about Monia Chokri’s stand-out performance. While Dolan and Schneider are certainly talented and deliver high-quality work here, it’s Chokri that steals the show. She manages to bring a nuance to the character that could easily have been lost in favor of a more generically tightly-wound female lead. Marie, in her ‘50s housewife dresses does come across as stiff and strict with herself, but it isn’t a one-note weakness or tragic flaw. Instead, Chokri plays the role with an impressive degree of balance that makes her both sympathetic and intensely frustrating, often at precisely the same moment.
Of course, the real “scene-stealer,” in the sense of taking a single bit part and turning it into a revelation is the fabulous Anne Dorval. As Nicolas’s whimsical and strangely attired showgirl mother, she grabs our attention for just a few short minutes, offers the one short insight into the back story of her son for the duration of the film and then disappears. Those of you fortunate enough to have seen it will recognize her as the title character of Dolan’s debut film “I Killed My Mother”, which still does not have a release date here in the US (this is due to the troubles at Regent Releasing; see Eric Kohn’s informative article). Let’s hope that the collaboration between Dolan and Dorval continues to produce such wonderful work.
Finally, a word about that title. While I do not contest the fact that “Heartbeats” sounds better in English than “The Imaginary Loves,” or just “Imaginary Loves,” there really is something lost in translation from “Les amours imaginaires.” Walking into the movie sight unseen, the two different titles offer very different contexts with which one watches the film unfold. “Imaginary Loves” gives you a bit of distance and perspective in advance, lets you in on the tenuous relationships Marie and Francis have with Nicolas from the beginning. I really do think that slight difference in cognizance helps watch and understand the film.
Anyway, “Heartbeats” is the title for US release and that’s that. It’s here and you should go see it (or watch on IFC On Demand), especially if you live in certain parts of Brooklyn or Portland. Just sayin’.