The constant criticism being aimed at young, wunderkind Canadian director Xavier Dolan, is that the Montreal-based filmmaker — while completely precocious and preternaturally talented — puts too much of a premium and emphasis on style over substance. And yet, just because it’s practically a cliche ad hominem dig against Dolan’s films, it doesn’t mean that the censure is off base. While featuring an impeccable soundtrack, a color palette ripped out of the Pedro Almodovar playbook for comedic melodramas, and an ineffable je ne sais quoi energy taken from the Jean-Luc Godard school of ’60s filmmaking (though Dolan denies he’s ever seen the familiar feeling, “Two Or Three Things I Know About Her“), the 21-year-old director’s sophomore directorial effort “Les Amours Imaginaires” (“Heartbeats“) is decidedly hollow around the edges and lacks an emotional center to cling to.
The film follows a particularly Euro flavored love triangle plot that is not too far removed from “Jules & Jim” (though Dolan denies that it’s an influence). Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are stylish bestie bffs who do everything together, and are the kind of pals who proudly stand together, judging the rest of the world go by with a haughty disdain; the kind of which is only found in kids in their twenties. But one day their world is thrown for a loop when Nicolas (Niels Schneider) enters the picture. Handsome, seemingly innocent and blessed with some attractive curls, both Francis and Marie become instantly smitten with him and, friendship be damned, they both pursue him. The movie essentially leaps into its point of action right there.
But there’s one problem — aside from the vignette interviews that pepper the film periodically about relationship and love– and it’s a major one that grinds the picture to a halt. Nicolas is a total unengaging drag who’s not particularly a compelling person. “It’s about two people infatuated with a perfect stranger who’s beautiful but banal and uninteresting,” Dolan told the Village Voice and he’s not kidding around. While unexplainable infatuation is a hallmark of young love, it also makes for at times, pretty dull cinema. While Francis and Marie may be attracted to Nicolas, the audience isn’t, and while the character does seem to get a mild, if manipulative thrill out of playing the two friends against each other, and leading them on, we’re still mostly left wondering what all the excitement is about. He’s bland, he doesn’t say that much and his supposed intellect fails to thrill anyone.
Back to those interviews. Perhaps as a stylish conceit, Dolan breaks up his banal love triangle story by cutting to ancillary characters in the film who discuss their problems with love, getting dumped, being obsessive, detailing the minutia of waiting seconds for an email response and and chronicling the pains of unrequited love. Aside from being shot in the most self-consciously shot manner ever — forced half-zooms and focus that seem organic, but are actually completely calculated — none of these greek chorus-like asides are particular funny, absorbing or insightful. Perhaps as an additional commentary on the hilarity and damage havoc our wild and unpractical crushes wreak on our personal lives, the interviews sort of work, but mostly, they feel like an unnecessary cinematic device to break up the mundaneness of watching our two protagonists chase a pouty, milksop drag.
Dolan is well-aware how shallow his two leads are and how their unrequited pursuit of an even-more self-involved narcissist/Adonis is equally superficial, but being cognizant of his callow characters doesn’t necessarily mean they should be given a pass. Perhaps if their trivial youthfulness was a bit more comedic, the picture would come across more wry and clever, but while it has its comedic elements, it’s not like “Heartbeats” is particularly hilarious. The sharpest moment in “Heartbeats” arrives in its conclusion, with what is a very clever and droll, winky cameo as the two leads fall for a new potential object of their collective affection — French actor Louis Garrel (“La belle personne,” “Love Songs” “The Dreamers“). It’s a deliciously funny and ingenious little moment that sports an amusing tart tone that “Heartbeats” should have carried all along.
But, just to put all of this in perspective: Dolan turns 22 next month. Already shooting his third feature, and with two under his belt (including his excellent debut “I Killed My Mother” which is wrapped up in a bankruptcy nightmare with the tiny U.S. distributor that picked up) Dolan shows an instinct far beyond his years. It’s not a matter of if he’ll make his masterpiece, just a matter of when. And there is certainly lots to admire in “Heartbeats.” The set and costume design is drool worthy, the performers are hovering close to first rate and Dolan himself could transition easily to Hollywood roles (a desire he certainly doesn’t hide) as he’s more than aware of how to use his expressive face in front of the camera. And speaking of the camera, Dolan is no slouch and he accomplishes a cinematic rarity — beautifully lensed sex sequences featuring both male and female leads that are gorgeous and exquisitely shot and lit in slow-motion, set to the lush cello strains of Bach — that can certainly be admired (though they simply do not move the viewer much).
In short, Dolan has all the talent at his disposal but is still figuring out how to piece it together and find his true voice — learning when something is too much or it’s not enough. So while “Heartbeats” isn’t the cinematic swoon we were hoping for at the very least, it leaves no doubt that Dolan is one to watch. [C+]