French-Canadian writer, actor and director Xavier Dolan took the festival circuit by storm back in 2009 with I Killed My Mother (also rereleased on DVD this week). This promising debut quickly stapled his name onto every up-and-coming director list around. Heartbeats (2010) is Dolan’s sophomore effort and once again thrust this prolific young man centre stage, as once again he stars both in front and behind the camera.
Heartbeats is the tale of a doomed ménage et trios. Francis (Xavier Dolan), a stylish gay man who longs to be loved and Marie (Monia Chokri) a young girl with a delightful shabby chic style, who longs to overcome the sexual trappings of a relationship, are the best of friends. That is until the introduction of Nicolas (Niels Schneider) into their lives. As soon as they both coyly declare they have no interest in this fresh faced Adonis, we know exactly what we’re in store for.
A series of intimate rendezvous leads the trio into an uncontrollable love triangle with psychologically destructive consequences. With Francis and Marie both falling deeper into a pit of obsession and fantasy it soon becomes clear that it won’t just be their emotions that are put to the test but also the resolve of their cast-iron friendship. Nicolas’ effeminate charms soon become something of a poisoned chalice and what at first starts out as a story of the poetic craziness of falling in love soon becomes a study of the humiliation of rejection and the crippling pain that loneliness can bring.
Heartbeats begins with the seemingly redundant frame narrative that Dolan has decided to wrap around the story – where individuals give their views on sexual encounters and try to shed their own light on the reasons relationships so often fail. These ‘talking heads’ segments seem like little more than an obvious attempt to fill in the gaps of what on the surface is a rather superficial movie, which hasn’t the depth of story to cover the magnitude of these complex issues. Unfortunately Dolan’s attempt to cover all too many bases fails to resonate, with what actually transpires nothing more than an irritatingly, self centred side piece that not only acts to disrupt the film’s pace but also never seems to gel with the incidents that surround it.
There are moments though where Dolan does manage to successfully navigate the fine line between high art and obnoxious pomposity (especially a glorious use of a classical score to heighten the films more intimate moments) Despite the incredibly arrogant nature of casting himself as the films lovable yet incredibly troubled central character, it’s difficult not to fall for Heartbeats incredibly stylish approach.
This is certainly a film which falls into the category of style over substance, yet the stylish tricks performed which don’t come across as overly gratuitous or farcical all point to a talented filmmaker with an obvious eye for a shot and an under used ability to make the most from a modest cast list. He may wear his influences firmly on his sleeve (whether it be the slow motion imitation of In the Mood For Love  or the obvious comparisons with Jules and Jim ) and this ability to re-create such style whilst maintaining the film’s own unique direction is worthy of praise however, these flashes of brilliance only illuminate the numerous flaws of a director who’s clearly under-performed.
Heartbeats, for all that it promises, is a film you’ll desperately want to fall in love with. Yet Dolan’s attempts to mix high art with dead pan humour in a framework of emotional devastation falls just short, resulting in a somewhat cluttered, arrogant mess of a film that may well excite and titillate at first but will ultimately leave you disappointed by the end.