With Heartbeats, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan, at the tender age of 21, follows the rocky slopes of a romantic love triangle between Montreal hipsters–a mundane theme illuminated by images and ideas that are consistently arresting. Two friends and sometime lovers–Francis (played by the director) and Marie (Monia Chokri)–meet a sexually ambiguous country boy named Nico (Niels Schneider) and fall in love. Film references abound. Nico is a cross between a Jean Cocteau erotic fantasy (at one point, the camera cuts to a display of Cocteau drawings) and curly-haired Tadzio, the tousled metaphor for seductive innocence on the beach in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, who becomes the object of obsession for Dirk Bogarde’s aging composer Gustav Von Aschenbach (based on Gustav Mahler). Marie even buys Nico a straw hat with a ribbon, like the one Tadzio wore to drive Aschenbach to self-destruction. My problem is that young Mr. Schneider, a great favorite of the director who co-starred with him in his debut feature, I Killed My Mother, is a far cry from the “self-styled Adonis” described in the script. His piles of hair never see a comb; he looks like he needs a bath; and he chews his dirty fingernails to the cuticles. Everyone chain-smokes furiously, which is as sexy as flatulence.
But there is something that holds interest in the way Francis and Marie begin their infatuation as a game before desire and despair change them from competitors to adversaries. Mr. Dolan is a better actor than writer, and the dialogue is self-consciously annoying. “A high I.Q. is a vital counterpart to brown eyes.” “Do you picture movie stars during coitus?” Discussing a play she has just seen called Pains, Migraines and Sonatas, Marie calls the authors “pseudo borderlines–with their pain fetish an escape from existential ennui,” declaring their previous work, Wild Berries and Sodomy, far superior. The pretentiousness does feed the aura of youthful angst and searching that defines the characters, who are insecure in every other aspect of life. All three characters have a passion for melodrama. Marie’s elegance and beauty are all she’s got, and when Francis isn’t longingly touching Nico’s feet with his toes in bed, he’s marking down his failed love affairs on the back of the bathroom door. It makes sense that despite their intelligence, they are superficial underneath, driven only by loneliness and lust. Instead of becoming a cliché, Marie turns from friend to female predator, and in contrast with the flamboyant gay men Hollywood has invented, Francis is sympathetic, vulnerable and without guile. As the sexual tension builds, the two friends’ frustration grows into physical violence; Nico regards their misery with complete indifference. Director Dolan gets the feeling of emptiness so right that anyone who has ever known the heartbreak of a crushing affair can easily identify, even with subtitles.
Nico ends up wrecking their lives the way Tadzio destroyed Aschenbach. Or does he? One year later, after all attempts to reconcile with Nico fail, the reunited friends see him at a party and reject and insult him, letting him know they’re over him completely. But are they? He is the camera, and as they walk into the lens, Mr. Dolan teases us into writing our own ending. The director often suppresses content for the sake of style, and scene for scene, Heartbeats is derivative of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Ozon. But at 21, Xavier Dolan is the new darling of Canadian cinema, and it’s easy to see why.
Running time 95 minutes
Written and directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider