The Museum of Modern Art recently announced their new cinema acquisitions that will join landmark pieces of art and nearly 30,000 other films. One of the new additions — a more conspicuous selection than films from Egypt and Kazakhstan — is something rather antithetical to MoMA’s quiet announcement: Les Amour Imaginaires (Heartbeats) by Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan.
Out of Dolan’s filmography, Heartbeats is an odd pick for preservation. Next to the 25-year-old director’s debut feature, I Killed My Mother (which he made at 19), it’s the film that most reveals his adolescence. And on that note, it’s perhaps, comparatively speaking, his least polished film alongside the Kubrickian formalism of Laurence Anyways, the Hitchcockian restraint of Tom at the Farm and the polished fervor of Mommy. Critics have labeled Heartbeats as derivative and pretentious, flamboyant and bratty, but it’s exactly the kind of film where such criticism means that it’s doing its job.
As a complement to François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (already distributed by Criterion), Heartbeats works as a contemporary version but “with all the 21st century neuroses” (as MoMa’s description suggests). Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) are two attractive hipsters living in Quebec when they fall for a ridiculously pompous and utterly alluring blonde Adonis by the name of Nicolas (Niels Schneider).
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The characters of Heartbeats are pretentious hipsters in pursuit of someone who doesn’t deserve their affections. On one hand, Dolan’s evocatively-crafted film can work as a satire of the follies of youthful lust, amused at the dumb things we do when we’re in hot pursuit. Spend $500 on a tangerine sweater? Check. Talk about the “Manichean” nature of characters after a terrible play? Check. On the other hand, there’s an awareness and an empathy towards both Francis and Marie’s plight. If Heartbeats was just a film where one would gawk at these two characters, it would create an intentional distance, formally and thematically. But Dolan lets you inside the characters’ heads and allows their desire to burn inside the audience’s heart.
At a birthday party for Nicolas, a dolled-up Marie and neo-James Dean Francis sit begrudgingly and stare at their object of desire as he dances with his mother. The Knife’s “Pass This On” bleeds through the stereo, as time slows down and we gaze at Nicolas along with his two admirers. The camera pulls back from Marie and Francis, respectively, and we see exactly what they envision when they look at the lustful eyes of Nicolas. Intercut with his segmented body are images of Michelangelo’s David and illustrations of men making love by Jean Cocteau. The yearning becomes palpable, tangible.
With interviews from “reel life twenty-somethings,” Dolan textures his world and embraces allegations of pretentiousness and brattiness. When we’re in love, we’re all that way. Underneath the veneer of glossy cinematography — an amalgamation of Jean-Luc Godard, Pedro Almodóvar and others — is authentic vulnerability.
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Both Francis and Marie ultimately reveal their feelings to Nicolas, which leads to a crushing moment for the audience along with the characters. The scene reflects the oddest thing about Heartbeats: its bravery. Romantic comedies, art house or otherwise, are too inclined to give you the happy ending in which the leads get their “happily ever after.” But Mr. Dolan, who is able to balance the brashness of his youth with an unseeming wisdom for his age, recognizes that you’re still going to end up back at square one at some point, despite the power of lust.
Unrequited love, a topic that’s only approached when a happy ending is surgically attached, exists in Heartbeats with a hyper-reality: a roller coaster ride of emotions, feelings and sensations. But, like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, there’s something intoxicating about the experience. Love and lust can be totally dizzying, and you can feel it with every heartbeat.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance film critic and writer. He’s also the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and began writing on the Internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, Kyle has contributed to TheBlackMaria.org, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and relieved to know that he’s not a golem.