Review | "Heartbeats"

Despite being his sophomore feature, 22 year old Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats is the director's first film to be released in the United States. He caused quite a critical splash last year with his debut film, I Killed My Mother, but despite being picked up for distribution by Regent Releasing, the film has yet to see a US release outside of a few festival screenings.

I was mixed on I Killed My Mother, which I saw last year in conjunction with the RiverRun Film Festival. It was a strong and promising debut, but I found it almost self consciously stylish. Dolan displayed a filmmaking prowess beyond his years, but it didn't seem as if he had quite figured out how to convey everything that he wanted to convey. It was a solid first film, with room for improvement and growth in the future. It would take a second film to really see what this kid was made out of.

Not even a year later, along comes Heartbeats (a weaker title than the original French, Les Amours Imaginaires)- which, frustratingly, represents both a step forward and a dogged stagnation in Dolan's craft, who seems trapped by his own inspirations.

Xavier Dolan as FRANCIS, Niels Schneider as NICOLAS and Monia Chokri as MARIE in HEARTBEATS directed by Xavier Dolan. Photo Credit: © Mifilifilms Inc. An IFC Films release

Dolan stars as gay twenty-something, Francis, who along with his best friend, Marie (Monia Chokri) meet an alluring and enigmatic stranger, Nicolas (Niels Schneider) at a party and become hopelessly infatuated. Marie falls deeply in love and even begins a relationship with Francis, unaware that Francis has developed feelings of his own. But it soon becomes clear that both of them are in competition for the same man, and the three of them form a strange triangle that threatens to destroy Francis and Marie's friendship even as it unites them all in ways they could have never expected.

As he did in I Killed My Mother, Dolan displays a keen insight into human relationships, and at its core, Heartbeats is a devastating exploration of the complexities and absurdities of love. As a writer, Dolan has a way of conveying emotions with a sharpness that often takes you by surprise. Here, his examination of mixed signals and misunderstandings is both brutally honest and surprisingly funny. He knows how to get to the root of a situation with great wit and little nonsense, exposing the truth of a situation with an almost painful grace.

Niels Schneider as NICOLAS in HEARTBEATS directed by Xavier Dolan.
Photo Credit: © Mifilifilms Inc. An IFC Films release

As a director, however, the opposite is often true, and therein lies my problem with Dolan. He is so infatuated with his own inspirations that it becomes a stylistic stumbling block. He is obviously enamored with the work of the likes of Wong Kar-Wai and Pedro Almodovar, and he fills Heartbeats with long, stylized sequences of intoxicating slow motion set to dreamy and haunting music. But whereas in the films of Wong and Almodovar such sequences flow naturally with the rest of the film, here they almost seem out of place, as if they have been forced into the film with no real purpose or context other than the filmmaker's own love of their sources. It is this stubborn adherence to the style of his idols that is preventing Dolan from blossoming as his own filmmaker. Right now his voice is lost amid the emulations of stronger and more experienced filmmakers. While directors like Quentin Tarantino have certainly made very successful careers out of emulating their inspirations, the difference is that Tarantino has really worked to make his inspirations his own, absorbing it all and transforming it into something that transcends their original sources. Dolan, on the other hand, seems engulfed by them, his unique voice lost amid the overwhelming homages.

He is obviously a talented filmmaker with something to say, but I want to know more about who he is as an artist, not the artists that inspire him. I've seen films by Wong Kar-Wai and Pedro Almodovar - they still make them regularly. I want to see something new, I want to see something by Xavier Dolan. Having inspirations that inform your work is one thing, but relying on them completely for your style is something else. It is for that reason that I'm not fully on the Dolan bandwagon just yet. Until he learns to rely less heavily on his muses, he will never grow as an artist, but the potential is obviously there in flashes of brilliance beneath the surface. He just needs to work on developing his own unique voice to truly come into his own.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

HEARTBEATS | Directed by Xavier Dolan | Stars Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, February 25, in New York and Los Angeles.


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