Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan
Cinematographer: Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider
Studio/Runtime: IFC Films/95 min.
Sometimes style really can be enough. Or at least enough that other problems easily fade to unimportance, which was the case in Xavier Dolan’s debut feature I Killed My Mother and now again with Heartbeats, a striking follow-up focused on unrequited love.
Dolan and Monia Chokri star as a pair of friends who fall head over heels for a guy who just moved into town (Niels Schneider) and seems simultaneously interested and disinterested in starting a romantic relationship with both of them. Switch up the sexes a bit and it’s not too far from Jules and Jim, celebrating the joy of infatuation in a world populated by artsy individuals with no greater concern than whose bed they’re sleeping in at the end of the evening.
Dolan and Chokri’s attempts to woo Schneider also aren’t far removed from more typical indie fare about young bohemians, the endless array of semi-plotless mumblecore movies that have little scope outside of their characters’ narcissism. But in style Heartbeats is light years away from these films, drawing influences from Jean-Luc Godard, Wong Kar-Wai, Gus van Sant and everyone in between to create a wide cinematic spectacle that’s wonderfully expressionistic and beautiful to watch. Dolan may not have quite developed his own voice yet, but he certainly knows how to crib from the best and the film features a dazzling array of style that’s bold and truly communicates the film’s adolescent emotions.
Heartbeats misfires at times when it tries to be more broadly philosophical. Its director may be a child prodigy (he’s currently 21) at filmmaking, but he’s still a kid and not a preternaturally mature one like Orson Welles before him. So the film may come across as trifling at times, since its observations about life and love come from a person whose experiences in those arenas are, needless to say, pretty limited. That’s of small concern, though, when sequences are so bold and memorable. In Dolan’s hands, walking down a street can become sensual and powerful, and in Heartbeats color and music combine to make every sequence feel like life and death are at stake.
The plot of Heartbeats is completely forgettable, but its scenes are so well-executed that it gives new life to the characters and the story they inhabit. Like the French new wave tradition it’s consciously drawing from, the style is in fact the substance and without it there’s not much film left. Dolan’s talent doesn’t lie in thinking up an incredible story, but rather in taking a simple one and telling it exceedingly well. You won’t see characters here doing anything you haven’t seen them doing previously a thousand times before, but you may more fully feel what it is they’re going through. That’s a much harder trick to pull off and Heartbeats does so with flying colors.
Watch the trailer: