Heartbeats (2010, dir. Xavier Dolan)
In watching I Killed My Mother, it was clear that Xavier Dolan had a sharp sense of humor. In Heartbeats he allows himself to make an overt comedy of manners that has delivered more laughs from me than most comedies I’ve watched this year. The story centers on Francis (Dolan), and Marie (Monia Chokri) are best friends who meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young man who entrances them both. They begin a vicious back and forth to decide who gets Nicolas in the end.
The comedy in Heartbeats comes from Francis and Marie’s growing animosity with each other over Nicolas’ affections and the ongoing confusion his behavior and words illicit. During a playful game of hide and seek in the woods he manages to tackle Francis, pinning him to the ground. And keeps him pinned for a longer than usual amount of time before hurriedly rushing away, an act that builds confidence in Francis’ perceived chances with Nicolas. A few scenes later, Francis finds out Nicolas has invited Marie to see a play together without even asking Francis which throws him into confusion about his possible suitor’s intentions. At first, our protagonists attempt to play things cooly and not truly acknowledging the competition at hand. By the end of the film, they have devolved into wrestling on the ground decked in clothing out of place in the rustic, cabin setting they have ended up in.
Dolan has a very deft hand at the awkward moment, particularly zeroing in the desperation people take on when they are incredibly attracted to an individual they see as “cooler” than them or “out of their league.” At one point, Francis makes a completely inappropriately expensive purchase for Nicolas’ birthday and, while this fact is only known to Francis and the audience, it adds tension to the informal gift competition that springs up between him and Marie. As an actor, Dolan has the most perfect uncomfortable, awkward smile. He’s left behind at Nicolas’ apartment and has to receive a monthly allowance being delivered by Nicolas’ mother (played by the remarkable Anne Dorval, who played Dolan’s mother in his previous film). Dorval dominates most of the conversation, revealing her career as an exotic dancer, her broken relationship with Nicolas’ father, and other TMI. Dolan doesn’t fade into the background, though, and through his face and his body language, the audience is reminded of all those intensely awkward conversations we’ve ended up in, and especially those with a friend’s parent or some other acquaintance who shares far too much information.
The new element in this film for me was Monia Chokri as Dolan’s rival. Chokri was fantastic and kept up with her co-star and director by exuding an awkward confidence. As the tension increases, her chill unaffected nature begins to show cracks culminating in a scene where she runs into Nicolas on the street that will elicit the strongest empathic cringe from anyone watching. The awkward humor is never to the intensity that something like Curb Your Enthusiasm produces, it is continually softened through a lens of romantic idealism. Chokri’s Marie is presented as a very composed and intentional person, bearing an early 1960s appearance in both hairstyle and clothing. Coincidentally Nicolas mentions his love of Audrey Hepburn and Marie begins adding accessories that emphasize those aspects of her appearance.
The film is about friendship and the silliness of “profound love” and romanticism. It evokes the visual style of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love in particular moments, but instead of using this imagery to evoke a sense of serious simmering passion, Dolan uses it to cultivate a sense of irony with the protagonist’s actions. This is yet another Dolan film that highlights a different talent than I Killed My Mother and Tom at the Farm. The former is a wonderfully bittersweet character study, and the latter is an exercise in tension and psychology. Heartbeats are Dolan’s take on a romantic comedy, a modern remix of Jules and Jim with his own personal visual flair.