“He seduces you,” says one corner of the cinematic triangle of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, referring to another corner. There are plenty of films about love, friendship, and love and friendship, but Dolan’s second film, about two friends in love with the same guy, does an impressive thing that few of those films can do: articulate the exact feelings of love and heartbreak through cinematic form. Several films capture moments of love, perhaps even recreate scenes easily identifiable, but the actual emotion itself is hard to render. Wordless, invisible feelings are rendered nearly tangible and very palpable on the screen. The film seems to bleed emotion.
When Heartbeats works in interviews with various characters, who have very little relevance to the actual story, mind you, the Husbands and Wives meets When Harry Met Sally… attempt at unlocking the “hipster politics” of sexual attraction doesn’t succeed as much as Dolan may want it to. Instead, it does seem a little clunky, sort of functioning as blatant exposition for the thesis of the film, dangerously weighing the film’s strengths. (The zooms during the talking heads are an unwelcome addition as well.) These interviews, as “critical” as they may be to the overall product of what Heartbeats is, do not actually work cohesively with the film as a whole. They distract, beating the ideas that Dolan should be letting the audience sift out for themselves into their very heads.
Juxtaposed against Dolan’s signature “film school aesthetic”, it further seems fairly unneeded and inessential, as they contrast against an attempt at realism and an attempt at feverish fantasy. It’s a shame that these scenes don’t work as well as Dolan wants them to, for the discussions and interviews themselves are of interest, given the subject matter of the film being sexuality and love. But, for Dolan’s purposes, there is too much of a contrast for them to work and flow cohesively with the film.
Another small problem that the film runs into is that the way Dolan discusses the sexual politics in the film seems dated, which is strange due to the fact that the film was released in 2010. At this point, queerness isn’t strange and sexual fluidity is more than an open topic for people within the demographic of the characters and the audience. But the interviews seem to present the film as if it’s a couple decades late on the matter, brushing off the idea of sexuality fluidity and talking about the Kinsey scale as if it were still the norm. Though it’s certainly an update from the comparably chaste heteronormativity of Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, the presentation still jars a bit.
The sequence where Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) first meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider) outside of a party environment displays what Dolan can do best: manifest his characters’ unbridled passion on screen. Everything is saturated in the film, from the colors to the emotions. Some may find the slow motion mildly elitist or pretentious, but the careful concentration that Dolan puts on the expressions, gestures, music, and almost bleeding color palette do exactly what Dolan needs: it makes the audience swoon for Nicolas as well. Personally speaking, he isn’t really my type, but in that sequence alone, my face becomes flushed, my eyes dilate a little, and my pulse quickens. Shots of small sculptures exemplifying perfection then cut to Nicolas’s immaculately chiseled features. In this context, Nicolas is the most pulchritudinous being in all of North America.
Nicolas is indeed the Adonis that Marie queried about earlier. Donning heart shaped glasses, recalling Kubrick’s Lolita, Nicolas, whether he likes it or not, is a flirt. Someone who intentionally and unintentionally seduces by merely existing, a very dangerous quality in a human being.
The scene following the initial meeting, where Francis and Marie are very much “interested” in what Nicolas is babbling about, is telling, as they both describe their impressions of Nicolas in a nonplussed manner. Their outward “meh” is an obvious veil of their actual attraction to him. Neither face one another in this scene and merely browse through lurid colored clothing. They are so obviously unimpressed that it’s clear that they find Nicolas intriguing, their apathy and overcompensation.
A French version of “Bang Bang (You Shot Me Down)” performed by Dalida plays as both Marie and Francis prepare for another meeting, and it’s already clear that they are both out to get Nicolas for themselves, noted by the slightly passive aggressive looks from Francis as Marie sarcastically and meaninglessly kisses him. During their conversation, both trade sarcastic, passive aggressive remarks to one another, seemingly competing over Nicolas.
An interesting aspect of the film is Francis’s sexuality. Ostensibly, he’s gay, but as the film progresses, it is implied he is actually sorting out his sexual orientation, made more complicated by the heartbreak he has experienced in the past. Nicolas complicates things, for, despite the clear lust Francis has for him, Nicolas’s sexuality is completely ambiguous. “Gaydar” turns to “Wishful Thinking” for Francis, who imagines Nicolas’s actions as ambiguously romantic. The gestures and body language, though imaginably neutral in reality, are plagued by Francis’s attraction to Nicolas and hope that Nicolas feels the same way. It becomes incredible frustrating, then, when Francis is unable to figure out if Nicolas is gay or not. That frustration is illustrated by heavy breathing, yearning looks, etc.
Lit only by filtered light of green and red, respectively, Marie and Francis’s post-coital discussions of desire are comprised of the same kind of lucidity which are technically in the talking head interviews, but make more sense contextually in the film. As opposed to getting a pseudo-documentary style that doesn’t really fit the film, the tension and pain each character feels and yet needs to shield from their respective bedmates is palpable. Marie denies that she imagines celebrities during sex, the dramatic irony insinuating that she imagines Nicolas. Francis describes his ideal Mister Right, describing almost to a tee Nicolas’s visage.
It is becomes interesting the way that Nicolas manages to divide Francis and Marie, who were best friends prior to his introduction. The sincerity of friendship for one another dissipates and is replaced by a lack of enthusiasm for the opposite’s actions.
Only do they join forces when, at Nicolas’s birthday party, they look down with contempt at a woman wearing a blue wig, dancing drunkenly with the equally inebriated Nicolas. The woman turns out to be Nicolas’s mother, but Francis and Marie sit scowling at two walking bottles of vodka.
Francis and Marie manifest their obsessions in different ways. Both of them see Nik as the perfection of the human form, so during the strobe light montage at the party, they both picture, in one form or another, Nic as Adonis. Francis’s attraction to Nic might be more carnal. It is suggested by the tally marks in Francis’s apartment bathroom that he has experienced heartbreak numerous times, perhaps alluding to him confusing sex with love. When Marie and Nic go out to grab the car for their upcoming weekend getaway, Francis is left in Nic’s apartment. There, he picks up some of Nic’s clothing and, intoxicated from the scent of whom he desires, he proceeds to masturbate.
Marie seems to know the danger of interacting with Francis, one who becomes too invested in things that are not concrete or reciprocated. Marie tells Nic that Francis “imagines things about people” and that “I love you”, to Francis, means “I love you”. There is a duality in this conversation. On the one hand, Marie is attempting to gain the upper hand, illustrating Francis as clingy, overbearing, and easily lead on. On the other hand, Marie may genuinely care for Francis’s well-being. Presumably, she has seen him heartbroken before and is not keen on it happening to him again. However well-intentioned telling Nic may be, the problem is that a) she wears a light smirk during the scene and b) he doesn’t listen to her anyways.
It is unclear if Nicolas understands that he is basically an asshole. Pardon my language, but how else to describe such a tease, attractive, kind, and wily enough to lead on two people at the same time. His mother mentions, while talking to Francis, that all the girls used to surround him when he was younger and he loved it. But one can assume that he knows he likes playing games. He watches Marie and Francis go at it in the woods, their pent up frustrations unleashed at one another. Nicholas just stands there, smoking. A hint of a smirk dances at the corners of his mouth. He loves the attention.
Interestingly, although the interviews are an imperfect fit for the film, they are not completely devoid of significance. Several interviews and talking heads provide just as much intimacy and insight as the story in the film itself, only presenting it in a different manner. One talking head says, “I think of all the money I blew to try to get her to love me… and I’m so ashamed of that…” The ability to slice into emotions so sharply is something that seems to come naturally to Dolan. Even though such a story is far more direct and unsubtle than one generally prefers, it nevertheless has the ability to ask the audience to recall their own follies in romance and love. That Dolan supplements this with having his characters experience it and articulating that with stylish visual cues is a testament to his talent.
The pillow talk scenes are something out of Godard, probably Le Mepris or Pierrot le Fou, with their low key colored lighting, and Monia Chokri is a fitting doppelgänger to Anna Karina. She can play melancholy or bucolic, and utter the occasionally didactic or overtly rhetorical dialogue with convincing panache. Dolan, though incredibly handsome, is too boyish to be Jean-Paul Belmondo, but his scenes work because of his vulnerability, not because of his attempt to pay homage to any actor.
The body language of anxiety and nervousness is constantly expressed in the film, making it a nearly intense experience. The idiosyncratic scratches at the head, nervous combing of the hair with one’s hands, mild pacing, a little tic here and there. These minute details flesh out the characters and give them an infinite amount of texture and authenticity to them.
The most heart wrenching scenes in the film is when you see Francis and Marie be honest with Nicolas, and all Nicolas can do is think of himself.
Francis, a nervous wreck, unsure of how to deal with his feelings, finally pours his heart out to Nic. The two sit side by side, and Francis speaks in hypotheticals, the way one does. He sniffles, a sign of his anxiousness. He says that this hypothetical person, “so open –minded” and “handsome, of course”, “seduces you”. That is what Nicolas does. By paying attention, by teasing and playing, Nicolas seduces you, the audience. Even though there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance where you know he is a prat, you still become enamored. While it becomes evident that Nicolas is soulless, Francis is soulful. Sensitive, caring, and sort of like a puppy dog. The little gestures Dolan uses to inform the character, particularly in this scene, are fairly tremendous. He takes his hand and continually drags it down his hair or his neck. That feeling of coarseness where you put pressure onto your skin and drag your nails ever so slightly so it burns. The only response Nic has to this revelation is cold: “How could you think I was gay?”
Marie doesn’t tell her admiration and love for Nicolas to him in person. Instead, she writes a lengthy letter. But she catches him in the street, and her manic rambling sets the tone for how the meeting will go. Nic isn’t really interested. He smiles, maybe amused, maybe apathetic. She blabbers on about a poem, and finally after beating around the bush, she, like her friend, asks in the hypothetical: “What if I had sent you the poem?” She looks expectantly at him. He says, referring to his second’s earlier attempt to get away, “I’d still have something on the stove.” As he turns away and keeps walking, a shock is sent down her spine, and she struggles to light a match for her cigarette.
As the tears cascade Francis’s face, the pain he feels is palpable. Sure, the scene that this occurs in falls back into Dolan’s “film school aesthetic”, something that some claim may be a crutch for him, something very ostentatious, but a bigger point to be made about the film as a whole is that such an aesthetic makes sense for this film. When are love and desire not ostentatious? Though the documentary style and the style of the rest of the story clash, they both imply the same thing: love is foolish, love shows off, love is flamboyant, extravagant, garish, and even a little pretentious. Contrary to Corinthians, love, or more accurately, infatuation is made up of all the best and worst extremes in a person. Dolan keenly observes this in his sophomore effort, and, as his characters and audience do, he’s growing up. Despite the transliteration of the original title of the film, love might never be imaginary. You can feel it with every heartbeat.