written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider
screened on October 21st, 22nd and 24th
I confess. I have a weakness for young, attractive French people giving themselves over entirely to their lustful urges. Xavier Dolan himself is a young and attractive Canadian person, but he’s from Quebec, and I do believe that’s included in Subsection 1B of my confession. After his vaunted J’ai tue ma mere, Dolan again directs himself in Les amours imaginaires (feel free to explain the disastrous English title, Heartbeats), though he can of course hardly cast himself as the object of everyone’s affection. The dark energy of his filmmaking refracts the few moments of possible sexualisation of Dolan himself as instead slightly self-critical, an awkward physicality we don’t see in Marie (Monia Chokri), or the friend both she and Dolan’s Francis fall for, Nicolas (Niels Schneider).
Dolan achieves these moments through techniques he’s rather boldly cribbed from Wong Kar-wai – it may not be accompanied by In the Mood for Love’s striking musical theme, but you can almost see a pot of noodles swinging from Marie’s hand. Yet there’s something strangely effective about these almost exhausting stylisations, particularly a slow-motion entrance to a party matched to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, that undercuts the imagery so hugely that it almost brought me to tears. Unlike Tom Ford’s imitations in A Single Man, Dolan doesn’t merely copy but adapts these techniques, acknowledging his influences but using an undeniably powerful technique in a different way. These moments in Heartbeats aren’t melancholy, and in their proliferation they shift away from being ellipses – they seem at once ironic and directly devastating, emphasising the sexual dimensions so exaggeratedly that it falls somewhere between mocking and pitying the characters they depict. At no point is this attitude clearer than a purposefully prolonged, simply shot scene where Francis, left alone in Nicolas’ house, furiously masturbates over some discarded clothing.
On the other side of this coin, while Francis and Marie are ironically sexualised and depicted as desperate, Nicolas is removed from most senses of the ‘real’. Inevitably slightly human through the mere existence of the dilemma as to just how much aware he is of his friends’ infatuation, he is nonetheless constructed more as an object, a pretty face and a mop of hair. The epileptic lights of a party emphasize his separation from his admirers: while they are grounded in the space, a continuously moving, unbroken image, he exists only in between the flashes of the lights, his movements frozen images. To Francis and Marie, and ultimately to us, he is simply the physical. Dolan’s script affords him only basic characteristics – and hints that these are mostly unattractive ones – and, though a thankless task for the actor, it needs no more than this from him.
When you finally realise how incidentally the collapse of Francis and Marie’s friendship is treated, the film’s odd rhythms begin to make sense. Interspersed sex scenes show Francis or Marie with unnamed partners soaked in one particular colour of light, a kind of sexuality that is so baldly expressionistic that it is more image than reality, a more mystical eroticism. Dolan consumes you in sensuality and focuses you on the mistrustful dynamics of love, so that while you might not match the lust for Nicolas, you lust for this mood in general; you are reduced to the carnal, the basic desire. It isn’t about liking these characters – the sneering ending makes that clear – but about identifying with how low these familiar feelings have made them, and can, have, and will make you.