HEARTBEATS is like Godard directing the kind of mad love music video the ‘80s were rife with (“Don’t You Want Me,” “Every Breath You Take,” “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” etc.) where the bouncy electronic pop doesn’t come close to obscuring the dark edge that underscores passionate love, and not just because the ‘80s revived ‘60s color blocking and Xavier Dolan rocks androgynous-to-feminine outfits and a sweet Vanilla Ice bouffant (on account of aiming for a James Dean look but without the side length required). I’d be more hesitant to invoke Godard, who saturates the picture like a film school idol, if Dolan weren’t so fully formed; the closest young voice I can think of is Lena Dunham, but Dolan has a much firmer grasp on what he’s doing, at least once the opening’s hyperactive zoom settles down—less empty pretension and pointless experimentation than genuine voice.
But as much as I’m impressed with Dolan’s stylistic command, HEARTBEATS is a pretty lightweight affair. The plot is straight out of WILL AND GRACE—a straight girl and a gay boy fall for the same guy—though it’s not in service of sitcom hijinks, and it certainly doesn’t neuter its male lead the way a network censor in the ‘90s would (not that this is THE DREAMERS 2.0, either). Instead this stock scenario serves as a springboard to capture the experience of infatuation, the way you can’t get enough of someone’s smell or luxuriate in your totally casual closeness or overreact when your crush isn’t dedicating all his time to you. In general, HEARTBEATS is about the way infatuation causes you to build up a romantic experience in your mind. Hence the French title, IMAGINARY LOVES—I guess HEARTBEATS focus-grouped better.
There isn’t a lot to it, but Dolan nails the experience of infatuation: close-ups isolate our heroes with their angst, bold colors illustrate heightened senses, ellipticism floats us through the hazy days of puppy love. It’s MASCULIN FEMININ down to its impetuous, youthful absolutes ( “Fudge is seventeen times sweeter than cherry”), only where Jean-Pierre Léaud would respond to perceived slight by spouting off about the movies or philosophy or Mao, HEARTBEATS goes silent (except, that is, for its evocative collection of music from the capital-R Romanticism of Dalida’s cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” to a mournful Bach cello suite), because its heroes are so caught up in their romance that they have no other personality. The subject clouds our brains, keeping us from intellectually engaging beyond simple emotional reaction, but HEARTBEATS is an intoxicating experience nonetheless.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and recently joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.