By and large, I enjoy Zack Snyder’s films, but with the exception of Dawn of the Dead, I don’t respect any of them. My main problem is that his visual style supersedes any sense of actual storytelling – Sucker Punch being the obvious worst offender of this. His films look great, but they have nothing backing them up – and that leaves me cold, because the movie feels empty.
So what if a film does that deliberately? And what if works? And where does that leave my derisive snobbery? With Heartbeats.
Heartbeats is Xavier Dolan’s second film, released within a year of I Killed Your Mother, and if that film had eye-catching visuals, then Heartbeats doesn’t so much catch your eyes as rip them out and keep them in its pocket.
Heartbeats tells the story of Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) who both fall head over heels with the enigmatic Nicolas (Neils Schneider). The plot doesn’t have too much meat to it. Their mutual affection for the one same man strains their friendship incredibly, and as for Nicolas, he doesn’t return their feelings but definitely leads them on into thinking that there’s something going on.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing there – all three put in good performances (Schneider being the weakest of the three, but then again, his character is meant to be kind of image-centric, so it actually makes some kind of sense) and it’s incredible to see Dolan go from playing such an arrogant and self-centred character in I Killed My Mother to really ramping up the awkwardness of his unrequited crush. Chokri is also fantastic as Marie, playing someone who appears to be structured from a completely different era but confused by modern angst – there’s a definite reference all throughout her character of French New Wave actress Anna Karina.
But the film treats the characters with an odd distance. While we do get to know them, and feel for them, and definitely have a sense of them as characters, we also don’t know anything about them at all. And it all works well. The love triangle falls apart – Marie and Francis end up alienating each other so badly that Nicolas distances himself, telling them to “love him or leave him” and once that happens, they realise there’s nothing there. Their friendship slowly mends, and when they see Nicolas some time later, they gruffly rebuke him.
The essence of the plot involves how damaging it is for people to involve themselves entirely in artifice – in this case, both Francis and Marie believe they’re in love with Nicolas, and that he returns their (individual) affections; they’re both obsessed with what the appearance of things. He appears to be reciprocating their affections, they appear to be completely cool with the other being infatuated with him, and of course it all goes belly up.
What’s so great about this particular method is that the film is ridiculously stylish. I read a review a while back that called it “hipper than the hippest hipster”, and while they meant that as a fault, I’d see it as a compliment. Consider the hipsters – they toil especially hard at appearing completely nonchalant – a true hipster only exists from people observing them as a hipster. While, yes, the characters in this movie are hipsteresque, that observation is essential to them – Marie and Francis both wrap themselves so much in what it would be like if Nicolas loved them, that he devolves into what they want, not who they want.
At various points in the film, we see Marie and Francis hooking up with people in no-strings arrangements – these encounters are saturated with coloured lighting, so that the only difference between one empty encounter and another is the colour it was – specifically the only meaning about these encounters (and by extension the characters) is how they look.
There’s also a red version, a blue version…
I attribute this to Xavier Dolan – he showed amazing talent in creating I Killed My Mother, which had a definite style, but Heartbeats takes that above and beyond. “All style, no substance” might be the catchcry of those (myself included) who deride films like those Zack Snyder puts out, but here it just works. When you’re not trying to pass your style off as having substance, but making the style 90% of the substance, then it seems to work. This isn’t to say that the film is visually rich but hollow – quite the opposite. It is amazing to look at, and all of that attention paid to how things look is pivotal to really enhancing a relatively light story. And that the story is light is not a bad thing at all.
All the performances are good, the film looks amazing, and the soundtrack is superb – I think Xavier Dolan and I share the same iPod, because I love and had nearly every song from Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother before I saw the films. He’s also managed to excellently showcase The Knife and Fever Ray and that always deserves a big (metaphorical) pat on the back.
I’ve deliberately left this review light on the details, because like I Killed My Mother it needs to be seen, and I want you to see it.