Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Heartbeats (2010)

by on October 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Nov 1 at 12:30, 4:00, 7:30 at FIAF [Program & Tix]

Barely twentysomething Xavier Dolan assuredly channels all the French New Wave spirits that plague most cinephiles at that all-too-impressionable age. His 2010 feature opens FIAF’s series of New Quebec Cinema, playing every Tuesday in November. As Karina Longworth complains in The Village Voice, “An undeniable triumph of artifice, Heartbeats acts as a kind of bizarro fantasy mirror, aestheticizing and glamorizing the madness that arises from unrequited sexual obsession, as drunk on beauty and blind to truth as its deluded singles.” But that seems to be precisely the point. Many critics did find substance within Dolan’s incontestable style.


Joshua Rothkopf outright implores you to bear with Dolan, for Time Out New York:

Can we really be so tough on a film that apes the sophisticated two-friends-crushing-on-the-same-lust-object structure of Jules and Jim? Of course not. And as we watch modish Marie (Chokri) and her gay BFF, Francis (Dolan), cruise in luxurious slo-mo toward their ill-fated dates with the aloof Nicolas (Schneider), can one not be reminded of Wong Kar-wai’s stylish In the Mood for Love? Don’t fight it. Note, as well, Marie’s Anna Karina bob and this romantic comedy’s cynical interviews to the lens. Love you too, Jean-Luc.


Here’s something more worth knowing: Writer-director-star Xavier Dolan was only 20 years old when he made this movie. And it’s already his second feature. Think back to the things you did when you were not yet out of college; it’s likely you won’t remember getting standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival. Dolan’s latest wears its influences—and its heart—on its sleeve, but the observations it makes are far from sappy. “Love me or leave me,” coos unworthy Nicolas to our heroes, and though you pray for the latter, such self-protective measures aren’t likely. Though his results are sometimes raw, Dolan seems to be chronicling heartache as he discovers it. Indulge him.



Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

In 2009, at the tender age of 20, French-Canadian writer-director-star Xavier Dolan took the festival circuit by storm with I Killed My Mother, a rough-hewn but crowd-pleasing and extremely promising debut feature. Having a filmmaker this good this early can be exciting, but there’s also the worry of the Tenenbaum Effect, when precocious artists peak too soon, without growing into their talent first. Produced just one year later, Dolan’s beautiful second feature, Heartbeats, goes a long way toward assuaging those fears. It contains all the passion and drama that animated I Killed My Mother, but carried across with greater assurance and technique. Far from being a liability, Dolan’s youthfulness gives it unmistakable vibrancy: This is a love-crazy, movie-crazy affair, laying bare its emotions just as plainly as its influences.


Heartbeats’ original (and much better) title, Les Amours Imaginaires, speaks to the creative—and sometimes delusional—nature of desire and the way it drives these young romantics to desperation and sabotage. Dolan plays their pettiness for some great laughs, but at its core, the film expresses something true about love’s power to obliterate all other considerations, including close friendship. Heartbeats is a little too neatly drawn, but Dolan’s enthusiasm and vitality compensate for more than they rationally should; this is a film even easier to love than to like.



Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan in a fantastic feature for The House Next Door:

I Killed My Mother and Dolan’s second film, Heartbeats, seem to me like breaths of cold fresh air after being trapped last year in stuffy, darkened rooms, cinematically speaking. They take great pleasure in things like color, shape, and form, and their effect can be extraordinarily sensual, as in the I Killed My Mother scene where Dolan and his boyfriend do some Jackson Pollack drip painting and then make love on the floor all covered in paint. Dolan shoots the lovemaking in slow-motion fragments, and he intensifies this effect throughout Heartbeats, where nearly half the film takes place in slow motion imagery set to lush music. Some might find all this slow motion exasperating, but why not use the camera to slow life down in order to really look at it? Isn’t that what most romantics would like to do? In Heartbeats, Francis (Dolan) and Marie (the extremely striking Monia Chokri) are both in love with Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and they always seems to be moving toward him slowly, trapped by their feelings but trying not to show their obvious discomfort in his presence.


So much of the impact of Heartbeats is erotic because it always withholds sex or breaks it up into pieces; when Marie’s lover covers one of her nipples with his mouth in close-up, it looks like a dream of sex far abstracted from the sex act itself. The sexiest scene is when Francis sniffs some of Nicolas’s clothes and masturbates; the fetishistic idolatry of this act is heightened by the way Dolan keeps his camera focused on Francis’s crazed, almost comic sniffing of the garments. Sex in Heartbeats is all in the mind, stimulated by thoughts and objects associated with the beloved, who seems even more alluring by his absence.


What’s so invigorating to me about Dolan is that he has been able to translate his own experience as a young man into film forms and sensibilities that seem both beyond his age and completely of his age. I’m a little more than 10 years older than Dolan, and I recognize his feelings and longings, which I’ve never seen on screen in quite this way before, but I also feel far removed from his first dazzled experience of adulthood. I hope that the gay world and the movie world don’t chew him up and spit him out as something more commercial, for Xavier Dolan is a Jean Cocteau drawing come to life and a child of Cocteau, jam-packed with all kinds of talent, and as such he should stay provocative and beautiful and creatively polyglot for as long as possible.


Another seconding of a Filmmaker to Watch from The AV Club, this one from Mike D’Angelo:

Trust me: This French-Canadian kid is a born filmmaker, with the potential for greatness once he manages to shake off his many influences and develop a style of his own. Saddled with the lame English-language title Heartbeats—the French title is Les amours imaginaires, or Imaginary Loves—Dolan’s new film, from a narrative standpoint, is a nearly threadbare tale of unrequited love. But Dolan, plundering world cinema’s entire bag of tricks, makes this familiar tale sing, depicting his characters’ romantic obsession in gorgeous Wong Kar-wai-esque slo-mo and offsetting their lack of self-awareness with Woody Allen-esque direct-camera interviews featuring various people who otherwise play no role in the story. (These interviews are themselves worth the price of admission: “And I thought, if somebody died every time I hit ‘refresh,’ there would be nobody left on the planet, fuck.”) In the end, Heartbeats—man, it’s painful to even type that—feels a bit too thin and derivative for its own good, but it’s still hugely refreshing, given the insane degree to which art cinema is now ruled by what one might call The New Austerity (cf. Aurora, Day Two), to see somebody exploring the medium’s lush, seductive, expressionistic possibilities with such unbridled enthusiasm. Also, Louis Garrel is in this movie, but the movie ends seconds after he appears, which is how all movies featuring Louis Garrel should work.


Damon Smith interviews Dolan for Filmmaker:

Filmmaker: Are you in love with cinema, with the form itself? Do you consider yourself a cinephile?

Dolan: Sure. I don’t know everything about cinema. I’m not a nerd—yet. My movies are not a love declaration to cinema. I’m just trying to tell stories. But I am very excited by things we can do with cinema. There are so many tools we have at our disposal to tell a story that we don’t have as painters or photographers. So I’m thrilled at the possibilities and I’m in love with the medium. I discovered cinema very late, at 16 or 17—some of my friends were watching Truffaut films at age 9, when I was watching Home Alone and thinking it was great—and not until I met different people who inspired me and showed me the way.

Filmmaker: I see you as someone who’s willing to experiment with the form and draw on a number of stylistic tools in order to frame, for instance, a story about unrequited love and romance.

Dolan: All I’m trying to do is indeed tell a story and try to find the appropriate style for the story, not my style. I’m trying different things. It’s not because I’m in search of a signature – or I’m part of [some] movement. I’ve been hurt by a lot of critics because they got wrong what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to bring back films from the French New Wave. I’ve seen weird underground stuff and all of Woody Allen’s films. But there’s no other director where I can say, Yes, I’ve seen all his films. The films I know the best are not the ones you’d expect a cinephile to know. Sometimes I’m ashamed of the films I love, and the ones I haven’t seen. I have to lie about it. [Laughs] I have a whole list of lies associated with films you have to like.


Filmmaker: Tell me a little about the thinking behind your opening conceit, these direct-to-camera interviews that provide a framework for Heartbeats.

Dolan: They’re certainly inspired from Husbands and Wives. This is the one tribute in the film. Now, I try to take a different curve, a different tone, it’s not exactly the same. I’d seen it in [the Woody Allen film], and it was efficient and very funny. It was a great punctuation for the film. For my film, I thought I only have two characters and the third one is a mystery man—we don’t know a lot about him—and I think focusing on two neurotic maniacs will be too intense. So hearing different voices—the girl next door or the guy who works at the coffeeshop—I thought would be an opportunity to say more about love. I thought that would be nice having all these voices chiming in. I wrote the film in chronological order, too, so the opening sequence with the interviews was first in the script.



The interview continues:

Filmmaker: You said once that critics tend to watch films with their culture and their sense of history, rather than their hearts.

Dolan: Are you insulted and hateful now? [Laughs] For example, I think of myself when I watch The Social Network. And I was deeply thrilled about it. I had conversations with friends who were comparing it to other films, and I was like, “Guys, the performances in this film are absolutely brilliant!” When I saw it, I was literally transported by everything and thought, This guy has ambition, he has dreams and a thirst for power, abundance and wealth, and I understand this. I thought [Zuckerberg] was, I don’t know, some kind of hero. It was one of these moments in your life when you walk out of the theater and feel great. You’re boosted with energy and vitality and maybe listening to the soundtrack you bought on the escalator from iTunes as you were leaving. This is the greatest entertainment I’ve seen in years. I’m having so much fun that I’m not watching the film thinking Who inspired this film? Why think about that? I don’t give a shit. I love watching other people’s films and getting this feeling of excitement. And I just think it is so bad that a critic would write, Oh yes, we know that Xavier Dolan has seen Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. No, I haven’t. And I never will now, because some dude watched my film and was contemptuous enough to impose on me my own influences!


Filmmaker: In Heartbeats you seem to be playing very conscientiously with ideas about depth and surface.

Dolan: It’s a very “shallow” film. These people are into a very conceptual love. There’s no depth—they are literally in love with themselves through the eyes of a beautiful man. And it would be great if he could love them. That’s basically what’s going on. They are choosing an impossible target so they won’t have to get involved in real things. They’re very romantic, but at some point the reason why there aren’t any crying scenes is because it’s a very banal love story. I saw no reason to have anything sincere. Basically what I was trying to tell people through this film is how shallow we can be in love. Hence, I think it’s only logical that the style would be more important than substance, which is not the case with I Killed My Mother.


Filmmaker: And the original French title is Les amours imaginaires, after all.

Dolan: Yeah. It involves creation and imagination, superficial visions and yes—colors and Chanel bags and marshmallows. This is intentional. This is a story about love imagery, the way we get infatuated with concepts and ideas more than individuals at this age.


William Frasca for Film International:

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats simply because I was able to recognize very early in the film he put “style over substance.” Not to say that there is not a message in the film about love and friendship, but that he recognizes the many stylistic possibilities with film and uses them to shape his story. Dolan is often accused of trying to “bring back” the French New Wave, and he denies any such thing. I understand Dolan’s denial of such a bold label that sounds as if he was unoriginal and merely mimicking the style of these films, but what I think those critics are noticing is, like Jean Luc Godard’s use of the jump-cut and even Orson Welles’s use of depth of field and long takes in their early films, there is a cautious decision to put style first over the clear orientation of the narrative, in an attempt to give their films a personal touch. Dolan may deny these influences but they are obvious in his themes, an emphasis on style that embraces a filmmaking approach that is attractive to a youth culture audience rather than a mainstream audience.


The most controversial technique that he explores here that critics seem to call out as a failure and a disruption to the film are the sudden cuts to the random interviews of young people talking about failed relationships, that seem to foreshadow the events of the main characters. The direct addresses have camera framing jerks to make it feel as if it was a documentary and Dolan admits this is inspired by Husbands and Wives. He said he added it to bring punctuation to the film and that using “real life people” was a way to say more about love, opposed to the just the love triangle presented through the narrative. It was definitely unexpected and I can see why some view it negatively, as it disrupts the flow, especially near the end when the film starts to really pick up as the characters are all in conflict with each other. But once I realized that Dolan’s overbearing style was going to be the driving force of the story and not continuity, I really did not mind. It actually allowed us to get away from the characters for a bit, and time in the film to also pass a year later when it picks up again from the breakup of the trio. This allows us to re-sympathize with them, as they move away from their egotistic infatuation to heartbreak and disgust with Nicolas.



Contrary to popular opinion, the director found much inspiration outside of film. Dolan writes for Artforum about his views on love:

If it’s not obsessive, it’s probably not love. Passion and obsession are very similar. It’s just that we don’t have reciprocal feelings most of the time and so we tend to view obsession as one way. But when it’s reciprocal, it becomes passion. For me, to be obsessed with someone is to be in love and to be in love is to be obsessed. I don’t consider obsession a pejorative word or wrong.


I found more of my inspiration for Heartbeats in literature and visual art rather than other films. Marie and Francis, the two main characters, are passionate about the impossibility of what they fell for. They’re into the image, or the concept of love more than love itself. What is exciting for them is the idea of being loved by such a beautiful person. In the party scene where they’re dancing, they see this guy and Francis thinks of Cocteau drawings and Marie sees excerpts of Michelangelo’s David, for me this is a scene where I am trying to explain that they’re experiencing projection. They don’t know this guy: he’s rather uninteresting and he has questionable charisma. In essence, he’s pretty empty, but the characters don’t see this. They’re excited by the fact that he is out of reach; that he’s an impossible quest. What’s exciting to Marie and Francis in unrequited love is not that it’s love, it’s the fact that it’s unrequited; that they love the idea of being treated like shit. It’s modern and subtle sadism.

There is this scene in the film where Marie is walking on the street and she’s got this dress on, a 1940s dress with a little buckle in the back and she’s walking in slow motion and she’s got a very nice ass. In the reflection of a storefront window she passes you can see a Metro truck driving by, which annoyed me when it happened. Metro in Quebec is a chain of grocery stores and this reflection seemed like a catastrophe because it’s just so unromantic and it has nothing to do with the gracefulness and the elegance of the shot. At the same time, I love it. It’s so complimentary; a happy coincidence. I am actually lucky. It reminds me of how much these characters are living in an alternate reality when they’re walking down the streets completely in love.



Eric Kohn for Indiewire:

“Heartbeats” (“Les Amour Imaginaires”) is as hip as Dolan 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. 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.)


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.


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