Given the current state of the economy, the United States can ill afford to lose its grip on any of the industries where they still dominate, but while independent romantic comedies concerning the foibles of twentysomething postmodern hipsters have been very much an American institution up to now, Les Amours Imaginaires (aka Heartbeats) -- the second feature film from Quebecois writer and director Xavier Dolan -- suggests that the French Canadians have been paying close attention to American innovations in the mumblecore field. Have they come up with a product like the Volkswagen Bug or the Honda Civic that could take a significant share away from Uncle Sam? Well, not quite, but truth to tell, they do have a reasonable approximation of the original with some interesting touches of its own.
Set in Montreal, Heartbeats begins with a handful of young adults addressing the camera as they gripe about the high emotional costs and low returns of their current relationships before cutting to a dinner party attended by Marie (Monia Chokri), who resembles a curvier Jane Birkin with a taste for vintage fashion, and her best friend, Francis (played by director Dolan), who never ventures out without the right amount of fashionable five-o’clock shadow and a perfectly styled quiff. Both Marie and Francis notice the presence of new guy in town Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and while they each make catty remarks about him, it’s clear neither can take their eyes off the man with fashion-model-pretty features and curly blond hair. It’s obvious that Marie and Francis are equally infatuated with Nicolas, but his behavior and conversation don’t immediately announce his sexual preference, and both friends begin making efforts to catch his eye, most of which barely register with the handsome but happily self-absorbed Nicolas. As the rivalry between Marie and Francis grows, with neither willing to acknowledge the competition even as they refuse to give an inch, the contest becomes bitter (and with no end in sight as Nicolas shows no clear romantic favoritism) until an explosive incident threatens to destroy Marie and Francis’ friendship, without either of them finding the love they want so desperately.
Heartbeats is clearly Xavier Dolan’s show -- he starred in, wrote, produced, edited, and directed the film as well as coordinating the costumes, and cinematographer Stephanie Anne Weber Biron lavishes as much mood lighting and flattering angles on the auteur as on his co-stars Monia Chokri and Niels Schneider, both of whom frankly have a natural advantage in the good-looks department. As an actor, Dolan brings a callow arrogance to his character that suits him well, and Chokri is a good match as the edgy and self-obsessed Marie, who, as hard as she tries, never seems fully convinced of her very real allure. Niels Schneider is given the task of playing a man who is at once handsome, charming, and utterly blank, and he manages all three quite well; it’s hard to say how much of this is acting and how much is the natural affect of a guy who really doesn’t care, but whatever it is, it works onscreen. As the film veers from comedy into something deeper and darker, Chokri and Dolan guide their characters well, and as a director Dolan handles the tonal shifts of the narrative and the emotional ups and downs of the characters with confidence, though his sense of pacing isn’t always quite as solid, as the film drags in the second act.
Unfortunately, between the bobbing and weaving of the often-shaky camera and the frequent and distracting zooms during the interview sequences, Dolan’s visual style borrows more than it needs to from the American mumblecore movement, without making much of his own out of the style. However, unlike most American films following this stylistic and thematic path, Heartbeats makes the most of its low budget, it captures its Montreal locations with a certain shabby elegance that feels more European than Great White Northern, and Monia Chokri’s performance suggests she could become the Canadian Parker Posey with the right roles. If nothing else, in Heartbeats Dolan succeeds in making us care about his hipster characters, which is a rather impressive accomplishment, given their foibles, and more than can often be said of the work of his American counterparts.
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