Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Heartbeats ★★★☆☆

French-Canadian writer-director-star, Xavier Dolan took the festival circuit by storm back in 2009 with I Killed My Mother. This promising debut quickly stapled his name onto every ‘up-and-coming’ director list around. Heartbeats was completed only a year later and critics now will get to decide whether Dolan is indeed the new ‘great white hope’ many proclaimed him to be, or simply another case of a young man who peaked to early.

Heartbeats depicts the tale of a doomed ménage à trois. Our two central protagonist are Francis (Xavier), a stylish gay man who longs to be loved, and Marie (Monia Chokri), a young girl with a delightful shabby chic style that aspires for that perfect partner with whom to overcome the sexual trappings of a relationship and find the perfect ‘spoon’ fit, which she believes is the secret to a long and meaningful partnership.

We join these two close friends who, whilst enjoying a leisurely lunch with mutual acquaintances, both land eyes on the same man, Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young boy fresh from the country who’s newly arrived in town. As soon as they both coyly declare they have no interest in this fresh faced Adonis, we know what we’re in store for....

A series of intimate rendezvous leads the trio into an uncontrollable love triangle as both Francis and Marie fight for the attentions of this new object of their desires. The pair both eventually fall deeper into a pit of obsession and fantasy, and as their feeling escalate, it becomes clear that it won’t just be their emotions that are put to the test but also the resolve of their cast-iron friendship. Indeed, Nicolas become something of a poisoned chalice, and what at first starts out as a story of the poetic craziness of falling in love soon becomes more a study of the humiliation of rejection and the heartfelt pain that loneliness can bring…

The issue of a love triangle is nothing new in cinematic terms. Recent French cinema has already delighted us with Les Chansons d’Amour (a delightful love letter to the musicals of Jacques Demy) and Dreamers (a flawed but no less enjoyable celebration of classic cinema). Heartbeats attempts to shine a different light on the topic by focusing on the destructive element it can inevitably have on the ones it hurts. Whilst it may sound an attractive prospect, a relationship shared three ways generally only heightens the percentage of chance that someone will be cast aside when the novelty expires and the usual traumas and tribulations of a real relationship start to raise their heads. Director Xavier Dolan’s has decided not to shy away from this fact and has instead wallowed within it. However, its many flaws along the way prevent it from being the masterpiece he has set out to make.

The first place to start with this critique would be the seemingly redundant frame narrative that Dolan has wrapped around the story – where individuals give their views on sexual encounters and try to shed their own light on the reasons relationships so often fail. These ‘talking heads’ segments seem like little more than an obvious attempt to fill in the gaps of what is quite a superficial movie, which hasn’t the depth to cover the magnitude of these emotional issues. Unfortunately, Dolan’s attempts to cover all too many bases fails and what actually transpires is nothing more than an irritatingly, self-centered side piece that not only acts to disrupt the film’s pace but also never seems to gel with the incidents that surround it.

Following on with this theme of self-centered storytelling is the obvious issue of Xavier Dolan himself. There is always a hint of arrogance in the air with any director who decides to cast himself in the leading role. Numerous times throughout the film peripheral characters refer to his character as “cute” or “handsome,” and there comes a point when this glorification of one’s self becomes hard to stomach. The decision to take the role of a very self detrimental character also screams of nothing more than preposterous attention seeking and greatly influences the overall enjoyment of a film which ultimately feels like nothing more than a man singlehandedly crying out to be noticed. Dolan is quite obviously a handsome man with a lot of underused talent, so his need to act like this becomes infuriating for the less ‘glamorous’ members of the audience who no doubt aren’t even close to having the looks or artistic talent to rival this seemingly unfulfilled young man. He clearly has the opportunity to do great things if only he focused more on his art than what others think of him.

This try-hard attitude is also apparent within other elements of the film. The soundtrack, for example, is filled with classic ‘calling card’ bands and blares out at an uncomfortable decibel level, forcing you to pay attention regardless of whether or not the gratuitous over use of strobe lighting has already directed your attention away to other less objectionable sights in the cinema – like perhaps the plush velour of the seat in front or the inviting gleam of the exit sign. To be fair, though, there are moments where Dolan does manage to successfully navigate this fine line between high art and obnoxious pomposity (like a glorious use of a classical score to heighten the film’s more intimate moments).

This is certainly a film which falls into the category of style over substance, yet the stylish tricks performed, which don’t come across as overly gratuitous or farcical, all point to a talented filmmaker with an obvious eye for a shot and an ability to make the most from a modest cast list. He may wear his influences firmly on his sleeve (whether it be the slow motion imitation of In The Mood For Love or the obvious comparisons with Jules et Jim) and this ability to re-create such style whilst maintaining the film’s own unique direction is worthy of praise. Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance only illuminate the numerous flaws of a director who’s clearly underperforming.

Heartbeats is a film you’ll desperately want to fall in love with. Yet Dolan’s attempts to mix high art with deadpan humour in a framework of emotional devastation falls just short, resulting in a somewhat cluttered, arrogant mess of a film that may well excite and titillate at first, but will ultimately leave you disappointed by the end – but like all immature crushes, given time, it’ll become completely forgettable.

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