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Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats: Style over Substance




By William Frasca.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats simply because I was able to recognize very early in the film he put “style over substance.” Not to say that there is not a message in the film about love and friendship, but that he recognizes the many stylistic possibilities with film and uses them to shape his story. Dolan is often accused of trying to “bring back” the French New Wave, and he denies any such thing.  I understand Dolan’s denial of such a bold label that sounds as if he was unoriginal and merely mimicking the style of these films, but what I think those critics are noticing is, like Jean Luc Godard’s use of the jump-cut and even Orson Welles’s use of depth of field and long takes in their early films, there is a cautious decision to put style first over the clear orientation of the narrative, in an attempt to give their films a personal touch. Dolan may deny these influences but they are obvious in his themes, an emphasis on style that embraces a filmmaking approach that is attractive to a youth culture audience rather than a mainstream audience.

Heartbeats is simply about three Montréal hipsters in a love triangle. Francis played by Dolan and Marie (Monia Chokri) are best friends who after meeting a “gorgeous” new guy Nicolas (Niels Schnider), quickly develop a joint fixation that will test their friendship as they compete for his affection.  This film has been dubbed as a hyperstylized Jules and Jim update because of its love triangle premise, though I found its shallow characters to be more like those of Godard’s Masculine Feminine, which is also about naïve twenty-somethings in complicated love triangles. Another New Wave influence that stood out to me was his uses of primary colors in bedroom sex scenes that are very reminiscent of shots of Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Godard’s Contempt. Dolan denies any such claim by critics who would compare his films to those of Godard and rejects notions of people reading into his films, but I think it’s necessary especially since his characters themselves try to embody movie star icons James Dean and Audrey Hepburn. This kind of film is for film fluent people, and sometimes certain styles scream particular directors or iconic films.

Through I think there are New Wave styles in Heartbeats, there are plenty of other techniques that Dolan seems to now own in his arsenal of style including slow motion shots of his characters with real time sound. For example Francis and Marie are cutting vegetables in the kitchen at a dinner party when they both first notice Nicolas. They stand next to each other talking about him and denying any attraction, and then the speed shifts to slow motion as they each separately take turns glancing at him, while the chopping sound remains in real time. Similarly near the end when they decide to repair their broken friendship they are walking outside in the rain and Marie covers both of them with her umbrella in slow motion and the traffic and rain are in real time. I really was taken back by these moments as I felt that they resemble the flustering of a “heartbeat” of the characters and their compassion towards another human being.

Dolan also has several extreme close-ups of body parts to highlight the body and draw attention to the sexuality of the characters, like shots of Maire’s butt in her new dress, and the back of Francis’s head to show his new James Dean haircut. His framings also emphasise his costume design and fashion of his characters that give the film a very contemporary look associated with the rise of the “hipster” style of today’s youth culture.

The most controversial technique that he explores here that critics seem to call out as a failure and a disruption to the film are the sudden cuts to the random interviews of young people talking about failed relationships, that seem to foreshadow the events of the main characters. The direct addresses have camera framing jerks to make it feel as if it was a documentary and Dolan admits this is inspired by Husbands and Wives. He said he added it to bring punctuation to the film and that using “real life people” was a way to say more about love, opposed to the just the love triangle presented through the narrative. It was definitely unexpected and I can see why some view it negatively, as it disrupts the flow, especially near the end when the film starts to really pick up as the characters are all in conflict with each other. But once I realized that Dolan’s overbearing style was going to be the driving force of the story and not continuity, I really did not mind. It actually allowed us to get away from the characters for a bit, and time in the film to also pass a year later when it picks up again from the breakup of the trio. This allows us to re-sympathize with them, as they move away from their egotistic infatuation to heartbreak and disgust with Nicolas.

I have to give it to the twenty-two-year-old Xavier Dolan who writes, directs, stars, edits, and costume designs this very hip film that can push the limits for some people’s tastes. I admire a filmmaker who is so involved in his art and takes complete control in an “auteur fashion.” Even in the negative reviews I have seen for this film, these critics all say that he is one of the filmmakers to watch over the next few years as he matures and is able to balance his style and the substance of his films.

William Frasca is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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