Xavier Dolan is one of the most talented young directors working today, but he is also one of the most reckless. My first Dolan film was Laurence Anyways, a daring story that was a great character study at times, but it was also far too long, and Dolan’s aesthetic flourishes were largely unsuccessful. The latter point is true of his previous feature, Heartbeats, another strong narrative that suffers from underwritten characters and overwrought aesthetics.
To clarify, Laurence Anyways was a great characters study not of the title character, but of Laurence’s lover, who had to make adjustments and organize her thoughts when her boyfriend revealed that he would prefer to live as a woman, much of which was brought out by Suzanne Clement’s performance; Laurence, on the other-hand, was underwritten. Laurence Anyways inherited that problem from Heartbeats, a story of a man (Francis, played by Dolan himself) and a woman (Maria, played by Monia Chokri) who both fall for an “Adonis” named Nicolas (Niels Schneider). Nicolas is a cipher, even in his two pivotal lines, but even Francis and Maria are not particularly well-developed. Maria is the stronger of the two. She references and offers her opinion on plays and films and we get the vibe that she is an artistic type, prone to frustration and jealousy a bit faster than she normally should. Francis is shy and has trouble articulating his feelings, but we do not learn much that makes him come alive.
Instead, we get heavy-handed musical cues, ranging from Karin Dreijer Andersson’s excellent electronic stylings to the instantly recognizable prelude of Bach’s first cello suite, and expressionist lighting. Dolan’s music choices are good at creating atmosphere, particularly during the film’s parties, but usually they serve as non-diegetic substitutes to actually providing any kind of emotion. They serve not as additives, but replacements, the mood of the song being the only tonal indicator. The lighting is either gorgeously warm, often-times natural light that makes all three actors look almost too beautiful, or colorful manifestations of emotions at the story’s public spaces. Together, they give Heartbeats a luscious look and lyrical tone that is only interrupted by a couple overly-documentarian interviews that distance the audience without adding much scope or understanding to the lovelorn theme.
The narrative, however, is fairly strong, and certainly applicable outside of its intimate world. The three become very close friends, even sleeping in the same bed together and going on vacation as Francis and Maria try, in their own ways, to win the affection of Nicolas. A well-placed expositional device informs the audience of the Kinsey Scale (essentially a 0-6 scale for sexuality, 0 being entire heterosexual and 6 being entirely homosexual) that forces us to consider again and again where Nicolas might fall. For the most part, he seems more interested in Maria, but possible eyes for Francis are not out of the question. It’s in this context that Nicolas needs more character development; a potential search for homosexuality and understanding of complicated “just friends” dynamics is rendered instead as a considerably less rewarding story of unrequited love and the inevitable breaking of friendship that the constant teasing of a ménage-a-trois will inevitably lead to.
Heartbeats is a solid love story that works for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, but the characters are never given enough life to make it really hit home. Much of what occurs feels incidental, sometimes even comic. The aesthetics, from the music to the frequent, never-ending use of slow-motion, are overwrought; emotions are shoved down our throat like the marshmallows in one of the film’s most obvious scenes, and the lack of character development and the emphasis on their impossibly good looks makes Heartbeats look shallower than it is. Dolan exhibits a great degree of talent and awareness of issues both universal and fragmented by sexual preference, but he does not have the restraint to properly convey it yet. With Laurence Anyways, he ups his ambition, but perhaps next he should comb his scope back to Heartbeats’ level and focus on execution, downsizing his aesthetic grandiosity and spending more time with his characters.