Oct 5, 2010

LFF 2010 review: Heartbeats [15]

Dir: Xavier Dolan
Heartbeats is a frustrating piece of work. On the one hand it is clearly the work of a talented young filmmaker; 21 year old writer, director, actor, editor, art director, costume designer Xavier Dolan. At times, it is sharply written and acted; incisive and funny about modern relationships and about the painful process of being infatuated with someone who doesn’t share your feelings. Unfortunately, on the other hand, at 97 minutes, Heartbeats is longwinded and Dolan is prone to being insufferably pretentious.

The story is so familiar as to be hackneyed. At a party friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) both meet and fall for beautiful new boy in town Nicolas (Niels Schneider). The rest of the film covers their various attempts to win his affections, which develop into a rather childish duel.

This central story is where Dolan does his best work. The way he escalates the rivalry between Francis and Marie, and the way that he and Chokri play out the passive aggression of the situation is often very funny. Both of them are able to say a lot without speaking and some of the film’s biggest laughs and most resonant moments come from looks shot between the characters. In service of this, he also makes brilliant use of music (especially an Italian language cover of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang) in slow motion sequences, which play out Francis and Marie’s arrival to meet Nicolas as if they are in a Western, walking to a gunfight. It should also be noted that, throughout the film, Dolan’s use and choice of music is brilliant, with a mix of cool current bands like The Knife and Fever Ray and more retro tracks like House of Pain’s Jump Around. The use of Fever Ray’s Keep the Streets Empty for Me over Francis and Marie’s most infantile moment is especially amusing.

It is around this central thread that most of the failings of Heartbeats are felt, largely because the rest of the film consists of things that have little place in the film. For all his striking visuals, Dolan can come off as pretentious (why, for example, are all the film’s sex scenes tinted different colours?) What hurts the film more is a sort of greek chorus, to which Dolan cuts roughly every twenty minutes, consisting of people in their twenties reminiscing about relationships. Unfortunately, their dialogue is heavy with obvious commentary and largely lacks the wit present in the rest of the film. These sequences are also annoyingly shot, with frequent pointless crash zooms, which completely took me out of the film. Here there is easily fifteen minutes of material that Dolan could cut and lose nothing of importance to the film.

The other glaring problem with the film is its ending. Or endings, it has at least four. At the tail end of every scene in the film’s final twenty minutes I expected the credits, as each successive scene failed to add anything to the central story. There is a nice moment right at the end, in which the film comes full circle, and Francis and Marie’s bitchiness continues to be amusing, even when it serves little purpose.

There is enough about Heartbeats that works to suggest that Xavier Dolan will make a great film in the future, this isn’t it, but there is plenty here (especially Monia Chokri’s beautifully judged performance) to enjoy. I suspect what Dolan needs is to abdicate some responsibility, especially in the editing room.

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