In recent decades there have been a handful of times we've seen a film and known immediately a master is at work here. Take the early works of Almodovar, Aronofsky, Francois Ozon, and Paul Thomas Anderson, for example.
On these occasions, on the screen, there's something that strikes us immediately. A style we've never witnessed before. A wit. An undeniable intelligence. We find ourselves laughing at a joke that's not a retread from a dozen mall comedies of the previous year. Or we smile or shiver upon recognizing a truth about the characters we see interacting before us, an honesty exposing our own little secrets that we've seldom shared aloud.
The two films of Canadian boy wonder Xavier Dolan are like that.
I Killed My Mother, which due to the "difficulties" of its American distributor (Regent Releasing) might not be available to us for many a moon, is a searing comedy about a 16-year old who, while trying forge an identity for himself, disgorges an unending, unearned, venomous wrath upon his poor divorced mother. At Cannes, the film garnered an eight-minute standing ovation.
Dolan not only directed from a screenplay he wrote at age 16, he starred in it. Unlike Truffaut, who needed Jean-Pierre Leaud to be his alter-ego in five films, Dolan has himself. As an actor, he's an accomplished comedian, one with a tragic core. And as a screenwriter and director, he's even better.
Heartbeats substantiates this declaration with its unblinking, winsome look at the anguishes of love. The French title, Les amours imaginaires or The Imaginary Loves, is much more to the point of the film's carryings-on.
The feature begins with a quote from Alfred de Musset: "The only truth is love beyond reason." It then cuts to quickly edited confessions of several Montreal-ites whose romantic sensibilities have been defiled by sweethearts who have soured.
One young woman admits that she fell "for that arrogant prick, Jean-Marc, who took forever to answer my emails." She didn't realize until too late that tardy emailing was a sign of disinterest. Another sad soul notes that when you love someone too much who loves too little, you can't help but become Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.
Finally, our two heroes, who are best friends, are introduced. Francis (Dolan) is a young gay man who's survived 159 bad relationships. He keeps score on the bathroom wall. Then there's Marie (Monika Chokri), a 25-year-old femme fatale with a Jeanne-Moreau aura, who dresses in early 1960s chic.
Well, all is fine between the two until Nicolas (Niel Schneider), a grownup Tadzio, shows up at a dinner party they're throwing. Tall, literate, beautiful, charming, tastefully eccentric, and endowed with a cash flow, he's perfect mating material. The problem is both Francis and Marie want to mate, and Nicholas's feelings toward both seem to be equal. How can that be? One of this pair must be more lovable.
Watch the fangs come out. As the two try to woo this god and seduce this god, they each do their best to decimate their competition. If you remember the catfights between Krystle and Alexis, get ready for more. Well, almost.
This is Montreal after all, which is closer in spirit to Paris than to Denver. So everyone smokes and drinks lattes and shops and chats and namedrops dead playwrights such as Bernard-Marie Koltes and argues about a Manichean worldview. And if this film is any true measure of it, French Canadians have not yet been overtaken by cellular addictions. It might just be too hard to light a cigarette and text at the same time.
However, once the nicotine smoke is waved away, and after Francis masturbates with a pair of underpants over his head, a very European ending occurs, and whether it's sad or happy, you'll have to decide, but it works.
As does everything here. The magic of Heartbeats -- and there is magic -- is comprised not just of its canny screenplay and subtle acting, but also of its colors, music, fashions, editing, and cinematography. If it isn't perfect, and it isn't (there are a few too many finales), it promises that Dolan in the coming years will constantly be closing in on perfection. He is a grand master in the making.