“Who is that self-satisfied Adonis?” Marie (Monia Chokri) cattily asks her gay best friend Francis (Xavier Dolan). Their casual nonchalance over Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a curly-haired, sweet-natured, impossibly handsome boy, is a mask for the immediate attraction – or is it lust? – they both feel but don’t want to admit. Nicolas is hard to read: He’s openly flirtatious with boys and girls, he’s obsessed with Audrey Hepburn, he reads dense philosophy books for fun and he’s a perfect blank. You can project anything you want onto him, but you won’t necessarily be right.Marie and Francis strike up a seemingly innocent conversation with Nicolas, trying to ascertain which of them stands a chance of seducing him. But Nicolas is an elusive sort: Just when you think you’ve got him pegged down, he blurts something out that makes you rethink your presumptions. This only makes Marie and Francis become more aggressive in their courtship, who treats them as if he were making up his mind which of them he is going to choose. H eartbeats (or, as it was infinitely better titled in French, Les amours imaginaires), is the second film by the Canadian triple threat of 22 year-old actor-writer-director Xavier Dolan. His first movie, How I Killed My Mother, about a rebellious teen’s tempestuous relationship with his mother, was angry and shrill and ultimately exhausting. Heartbeats is a much stronger, even sublime film – there are moments of heartbreaking beauty in it – although Dolan is still a work in progress. He’ll get better – he’s immensely talented – but he’s not quite there yet. Using a wryly comical undertone that never detracts from the protagonists’ painful romantic longings, Heartbeats charts the growing rivalry between Marie and Francis, who wage a silent passive-aggressive war in order to win Nicolas’ affections. The fact that the young man doesn’t appear to be interested in anything other than casual friendship is no deterrent. Dolan is young enough to remember how love at first sight can be an unstoppable, all-consuming force that takes over your life until nothing else matters, and there are many shots in the film where the characters’ eyes convey much more emotion and desire than mere words ever could. The movie would have been marvelous if it had remained focused on its central triangle, which climaxes with a surprising, heartrending conclusion. But Dolan can’t resist the urge to overstuff his canvas with unnecessary asides to conversations among unnamed young people on the vagaries of love. Those scenes bog down the movie and contribute nothing to the central storyline. Maybe Dolan felt his premise was too slight and wanted to beef it up with these pointless asides, but I couldn’t wait for the film to get back to the growing ( and comic) animosity between Marie and Francis, who have become romantic rivals for the first time and are not handling it well. In the film’s final, absolutely perfect scene, the matter is settled in such a satisfactory manner, you want to stand up and applaud.
Movie InfoCast: Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider, Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval.
Writer-director: Xavier Dolan.
Producers: Xavier Dolan, Daniel Morin.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 97 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.