Heartbeats

Heartbeats was my first film of the 2010 Sydney Film Festival. If this is how it starts, I’m expecting good things. It’s also a competition film. I only saw one of those last year: Louis-Michel (hardly a competitor). This year, I’m seeing every competition entry.

Heartbeats is not for everyone, dividing along two primary gaps: sexuality (preferred by gays) and age (preferred by hip twenty somethings). That said, Roger Ebert himself is keen to see it, and I can’t say I blame him. Much is made of the fact that director Xavier Dolan is only 21, but everyone gets their start sometime.

Heartbeats (or, its original French-Canadian title, “Love, Imagined”) is the story of a love triangle:  best friends Marie and Francis are both besotted by curly haired god Nicolas. Their own relationship falters as they jealously vie for Nicolas’ bemused attentions. Frequently, and inexplicably, scenes are bookended by people talking about their experiences in love, in an almost When Harry Met Sally style. They don’t really fit, but they’re there.

If nothing else, Heartbeats has style going for it. While the camera is sometimes shaky, occasionally zooms in and out and more than once shifts focus for no apparent reason, more often than not Dolan seems to be making love not to his camera, but expressing love with it. Heartbeats is a paean to colour, marshmallows and devastatingly beautiful young people of both genders.

Monia Chokri is flawless and hilarious as Marie; in her representation I saw an almost Almodovar level of love for a woman. Dolan himself plays Francis, and he and Nicolas (Niels Schneider) seem as pale shadows by comparison to Chokri’s nearly blinding incandescence. Chokri could conceivably make a strong career for herself as someone’s muse – Dolan’s camera loves her – but I definitely want to see her again regardless.

Heartbeats is heavy on colour and repetition (if you want to hear Bang Bang sung in French while people walk in slow motion, prepare to see it at least four separate times!) but this works in its favour. While as a narrative movie it is by design not very strong (scenes, no real drive), it is visually quite striking: when Dolan’s not going crazy with the camera, his combination of imagery and music are potent indeed and either rewarding or testing of patience dependent on your frame of mind.

The pieces to camera are funny, but they don’t work in the context of the main narrative, and steal some of its thrust – they seem derivative. The densely saturated single coloured bedroom scenes are presented without comment or context, and seem only to serve to separate sex from love.

The relationships themselves are tenuous: the way we’re shown Marie and Francis is not at their best. It’s a seasonal film, though, and somehow Dolan and Chokri pull through as believable friends despite hating each other as all love rivals do.

Heartbeats seems identifiable, which is strange, because I’ve never been in a situation like it. I don’t know if any of my friends have, or if it just seems like it’s real because I’ve watched so many movies along these lines.

At any rate, I know what I like, and I liked Heartbeats. It made me realize that my own cinematic vocabulary is too limited to tackle a film such as this – and that only inspires me to try harder next time.

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