AFI Fest 2010
By Don Simpson | November 27, 2010
Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer(s): Xavier Dolan
Starring: Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider, Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval
A lot of people seem to hate Xavier Dolan, but I am wondering if most of it is just plain old jealousy. At the ripe young age of 21, Dolan has already screened two feature films at Cannes (where he won three awards — Prix Regards Jeune, C.I.C.A.E. Award and SACD Prize — for his first feature, I Killed My Mother). Sure, there have been several directors who have made stronger first films than I Killed My Mother (to list a few: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Ken Loach, Roman Polanski, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Satyajit Ray, John Cassavetes, Louis Malle, Sidney Lumet, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Allison Anders, Steven Soderbergh, Coen Brothers, Todd Haynes, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson) — but how many of them were under 21-years old?
There is the complaint that Dolan’s films are overly derivative. His visual aesthetic might allude to the films of the La Nouvelle Vague but I cannot think of one specific filmmaker who Dolan derives his style from. Dolan includes a lot of visual references to films within his films, but never to the point of mimicry. When I watch Dolan’s feature-length films, I see something that is completely original. Dolan plays with the past — reusing and recycling images and ideas — but his films never ape any one source. Maybe it is the film historian in me writing, but I happen to like filmmakers who are not afraid to reference films of the past.
Another criticism is that Dolan places too much emphasis on style over content. I can see how Dolan’s hyper-stylized images might distract some viewers from the content of his films, but I certainly do not believe that his films lack content. It is actually the narrative content — specifically his representation of gay men — that makes Dolan’s films special; I would not be surprised if Dolan’s films go down in film history in a unique chapter of Queer Cinema. As far as his cinematic style is concerned, Dolan has proven so far that he can cleverly manipulate images to tremendous effect. Sure his films are eye candy, but there is also a story and a message.
That is more than enough about my defense of Dolan for now — you are presumably reading this review to learn more about his newest film, Heartbeats…
Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are hyper-hip BFFs who commence a fierce competition for the affections of the sexually ambiguous Nico (Niels Schneider). In turn, Nico knowingly or unknowingly (its your call) taunts and teases the friends into a bitter high schoolish rivalry that eventually comes to physical blows.
Heartbeats is essentially about a threesome of trendy twenty-something Québécois hipsters with a unique flair for melodrama. All three characters are quite superficial in terms of their appearances (they are what they wear — nothing more, nothing less) and attitudes towards others. Dolan’s penchant for slow motion when photographing the leads clearly accentuates their beauty and elegance, yet reinforces that their beauty and elegance is all they have. Francis co-opts the physical appearance (or, at least, the iconic hairstyle) of James Dean; Marie evolves into Audrey Hepburn (by way of Anna Karina); and Nico resembles a classic Greek Adonis, or a cross between a Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger lead. Nico exists purely as an object of lust, while Francis and Marie appear to be driven only by sex.
To counteract (or provide a Brechtian disruption for) the purely sexual tension, Dolan intersperses pseudo-documentary footage of female and male subjects describing their most obsessive loves. With these talking head interviews, Dolan is informing us that Francis and Marie are not the only two people who have become crazy while in the grasp of love. Sometimes Brechtian techniques work better than other times; in the case of Heartbeats, the interviews do not work for me at all. (In my opinion, this is Dolan’s one amateurish flaw in Heartbeats.)
Something I have noticed (as have other critics) is that in comparison with the kind and beautiful male characters, Dolan’s females are cruel and calculating monsters. (Nico, being a straight male, is merely a dick tease.) Dolan’s gay males are not the stereotypically catty, spiteful and flamboyant queers we have grown to know and love via Hollywood; they are quite vulnerable, sympathetic and normal characters. He might be impeccably dressed with perfectly coiffed hair, but Francis is by no means flamboyant. For all intents and purposes, Francis could be a straight metrosexual hipster — except we do occasionally see Francis in bed beside another male, and we know that he has a more than just friends infatuation with Nico (highlighted in the cleverly conceived masturbation scene). Basically, Dolan has discovered a way to normalize gay men, all the while demonizing straight women, but the jury is still out on straight men and lesbian women.
Dolan artistically crafts each and every scene with intensely colorful costume and production design. The party scene — during which Dolan utilizes strobe lights to tremendous effect — is a lot of fun to watch; while the monochromatically-gelled lighting of the bedroom scenes introduces a certain Kenneth Anger aesthetic to the film. First and foremost, though, are the slow motion walking scenes (which is quickly becoming Dolan’s directorial signature) in which the actors’ wardrobes are always brilliantly juxtaposed against a colorful backdrop, all the while the soundtrack (which is often the de facto theme for Heartbeats, Dalida’s “Bang Bang”) meshes perfectly with the movement.