REVIEW: Mildly Intriguing Heartbeats Won't Set Your Pulse Racing
Xavier Dolan's Quebecois love-triangle drama Heartbeats shows what happens when a director's filmmaking gets in the way of his filmmaking. Dolan -- who also wrote the script and appears in a starring role -- takes an intriguing idea and, instead of stripping it down to the sparkling essentials, layers so many curlicues around it that whatever appeal it might have had is obscured. There's a lot that works in Heartbeats -- so much that its flaws stand out in disappointingly sharp relief.
Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are close friends in their mid-twenties, living in Montreal: They shop together, cook together, and share their romantic frustrations with each other. When they spot a new face at a dinner party -- and sacrebleu! what a face it is -- they're respectively and collectively captivated. Nicolas (Niels Schneider) sports a headful of blond curls that might have been borrowed from Michelangelo's David, though in stance and attitude, he's more like the Donatello version, with a hand-on-hip faux-insouciance that pretty much shouts, "Adore me!"
And he reflects nothing back in return. Nicolas is not only unattainable; he's completely unreadable. Francis and Marie both hope to win his love and, of course, his sexual favors, but they can't tell if he's gay or straight. One minute he's informing the smitten Marie (with her wardrobe of trim vintage sheaths, her pearls and her Breakfast at Tiffany's chignon) how much he adores Audrey Hepburn; the next he's coaching Francis in the proper method of eating a toasted marshmallow (it has something to do with using your lips to gently remove the toasty-golden foreskin).
Nicolas is a gorgeous blank: Not only does he fail to give off any sexual vibe; he's virtually expressionless. He'll brag about reading heavy-duty philosophy tomes at night to "exercise his brain," and yet there's no evidence of his having a sensibility, of any sort whatsoever. What makes him laugh? What hurts his feelings? What does he like to do in his seemingly endless spare time? We -- and Francis and Marie -- never know.
Yet scene by scene, they both fall more deeply in love with him. The point, maybe, is that they don't care what or who it is they're loving. What comes to matter more is the fierceness of the competition between them, and the way it tears at the fabric of their friendship. The problem is that Nicolas is such a big zero to watch: After the first few scenes, you stop wondering what he's about and just wishing he'd go away. Meanwhile, Marie and Francis become, inexplicably, more fascinated. At one point Marie even laments that Nicolas was probably the love of her life, which is probably a mini-joke, considering she's only 25: Dolan seems to be poking gentle fun at the way, when we're young, we sometimes feel an irrationally strong desire for people who are totally wrong for us.
That's a viable and sensitive observation -- in this follow-up to his acclaimed debut, the 2009 I Killed My Mother, Dolan has lots of ideas, and they're not all bad ones. But he becomes tangled in his own web of disaffected cleverness. He's constantly interrupting his story with interstitial musings from lovelorn young people: One can't help seeking love on the Internet and is addicted to indiscriminate use of the "send" key; another explains her conflicted feelings about a boyfriend's chronic lateness problem, finding it alternately endearing and maddening. By the time we get back to the story of Francis, Marie and Nicholas, our interest has flagged; Dolan tests it further with his excessive fondness for arty slow-motion sequences and an unfortunate repetition of Italian pop star Dalida's version of "Bang Bang." The song sounds great, and works well, the first time; the second and third, it begins to feel pretty threadbare.
Dolan is deeply in love with style itself, and to a point, you can't blame him. There's tons of smoking in Heartbeats, even more than in most recent French films. (Is Quebec the last surviving smoker's paradise?) That's a trend I approve of heartily: Now that we can no longer smoke in real life, can we at least have the pleasure of watching people do it in the movies?
But watching attractive young people swan about isn't enough to sustain you through a whole movie. Dolan plays Francis as a sensitive, somewhat humorless lad, like the cover-photo on a Smiths album come to life, and it's not long before his moue becomes muy repetitive. Chokri, as the prickly, emotionally guarded Marie, is more compelling: She betrays enough flickers of passion to keep you wondering why she keeps her feelings wrapped up as tight as her hairdo. Heartbeats has a lot going for it, but Dolan doesn't seem to know when or how to scale back the self-indulgent film-school touches. He's an admirably ambitious young filmmaker; he just has to figure out when to subtract rather than add.