Dir: Xavier Dolan

Rating: 4.2/5.0

IFC Films

104 Minutes

Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats turns on an axis of cool. Its musical choices, character wardrobes, everything from books on tables to posters on walls are selected for referential impact. Yet nothing is quite as cool as Nico, the curly-haired Adonis who glides into the two protagonists lives, then back out, drifting along on a wave of insouciant dreaminess. He’s the real pivot in a movie that despite initial impressions of pretty vacancy, actually serves as a cunning statement on the tenuous nature of hipness.

The story examines Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan), who find their friendship turned into a pitched battle when they both fall for Nico (Niels Schneider), a newcomer from the country whose sexuality is as mysterious as the rest of him. It’s an old story given a modern twist, like the vintage dresses Marie uses to define herself, entering an Audrey Hepburn phase when she learns of Nico’s fondness for the actress. Dolan employs all these aesthetic markers as clues to his deeper message, shaping a running commentary on both the importance of surfaces and the core uneasiness involved in the pursuit of cool.

In this sense Nico, who gets visually compared to Jean Cocteau drawings and classical art for further emphasis, is a living embodiment of effortless trendiness. The other characters collect tchotchkes and affectations, presenting them as gifts to this pagan deity, hoping to gain his approval. But Nico is beyond impressing. “He’s an airhead,” the character’s mother says to Francis in one scene, but his serene attitude makes him the only character not obsessed with micro-managing his image. Meanwhile the other characters seem to dwell exclusively on aesthetics, fussing endlessly over clothing and hairstyles.

In this context, Dolan’s endless slow-motion shots of characters walking, the camera scanning their bodies under hip tunes, take on an actual purpose. In one scene, the two protagonists sweep into Nico’s birthday party, dressed to the nines, buffered by the strains of Dalida’s “Bang Bang”, which functions as their de facto theme song. Nothing deflates their confidence faster than the populist atmosphere that greets them at the crowded party, a feeling echoed by the soundtrack shift to House of Pain’s cheesy but lovable “Jump Around.” Here Nico is not a private curio to be fawned over, he’s at the will of the masses, ogled by a trio of bitchy girls and mingling with everyone. In one fell swoop Dolan illuminates the exigencies of trendiness, showing to what extent cool is defined by exclusivity.

Despite spending most of its time with these three characters, Heartbeats leaves us knowing little to nothing about the everyday reality of their lives. They’re all fashionable ciphers, befitting which the struggle between the two friends is not really a fight for love or companionship, but to possess this exotic thing all for themselves. It’s not a coincidence that private get-togethers are ruined by run-ins with groups of friends, who suck away Nico’s attention, or that Francis jerks off with Nico’s shirt draped over his head. By turning this creaky story device into a modern hipster fable, Dolan crafts a gorgeous artistic product while also making real observations about the rules and insecurities that define youth culture.

by Jesse Cataldo

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