22-Year-Old Auteurs Make Alex Swoon and Aaron Feel Insecure; or, We Review ‘Les Amours Imaginaires’

Alex: Google Translate tells me that Les Amours Imaginaires, which one might think translates to “The Imaginary Loves,” actually does translate to Heartbeats, the U.S. title of the film. Must be an idiom or something. When I changed the translation direction and wrote “heartbeats,” it told me that translates to “pulsations cardiaques.” I’m confused. Aaron, you speak a little French, don’t you?

Anyway, Xavier Dolan’s film Heartbeats totally got my cardiaque pulsating. This is the second movie from the 22-year-old French Canadian filmmaker, hereafter referred to as My Future Husband, or MFH for short. Last year he made a movie I haven’t seen called I Killed My Mother, which has something to do with a gay kid and his relationship with his mom. Xavier not only wrote and directed both films, he stars in both. (And, if I’m interpreting the closing credits of Heartbeats correctly, he edited it and designed the costumes, too. Is there anything MFH can’t do??)

Xavier stars as one third of a love triangle. He and his bestie, Marie (Monia Chokri), have become infatuated with the same guy, a golden-locked hottie named Nicolas (Niels Schneider). As written, cast, and performed, Nicolas is a perfect narcissist. There’s a scene in which Francis (MFH) runs into Nicolas outside a coffee shop and for the few moments they chat Francis is more upbeat, more smile-y, than at any other point in the film. It’s such a true moment: when these people pay attention to you, you’re on top of the world. Nicolas is to Francis what Dickie Greenleaf is to Tom Ripley (though Francis happens not to be psychotic).

And, like Dickie, Nicolas eventually gets bored of his new friends, and that’s when the agony really sets in. Francis and Marie’s shared obsession is both hopeless (they can never have Nicolas because he doesn’t really want to be had) and puts their own friendship in jeopardy. There’s a lovely image near the end of the film that suggests Francis and Marie are going to survive — and that ought to be where the film ends. But, alas, there’s a “one year later” epilogue that I think the movie can do without. I suspect Aaron agrees…

One of the qualities I admire about Dolan’s directorial style is that he manages to capture the nuances of intimate conversation — little things one party says that inadvertently humiliate another party — without using the standard shot-reverse shot format. His camera hovers just above his characters’ eye level and sort of floats among them, just managing to catch their reactions, the jab-and-parry of conversations loaded with subtext.

There’s also something going on in this film about perception and iconography. Marie takes pains to look like Audrey Hepburn, and Francis sits in his hairdresser’s chair and hands her a photograph of James Dean, at which she rolls her eyes. (A brilliant bit of screenwriting, that little scene — all visual, no dialogue.) People who fall for narcissists tend to be the converse, i.e. they tend to have a, shall we say, undercooked sense of their own character and worth. They tend not to be interested in themselves. So it makes sense that Francis and Marie would try to be something they’re not — or give themselves some pre-packaged definition — in order to get Nicolas’s attention.

Then, at a party, they watch Nicolas from a distance, and from Marie’s point of view Nicolas is intercut with closeups of Michelangelo’s David, while from Francis’s point of view he’s intercut with Cocteau drawings of naked men.

Somehow all this seems key to the meaning of the film, which, because it’s a film, creates its own version of physical beauty. The epilogue suggests (predictably) that Francis and Marie, who have new haircuts, are no longer trying to resemble movie icons but are being more themselves.

One last thing: the movie intercuts its story with “interviews” with people describing their first (or most searing) experience of heartbreak. I can’t be sure whether these are real people and real stories or not, but they sure feel written, and these people sure seem to be acting for the camera. Either way, I think the movie can do without these scenes. They serve only to echo an idea that the love-triangle story develops fully on its own.

Call me, Xavier!

Aaron: Alex, you’re right-on with you summary and thoughts on Heartbeats (don’t let it get to your head, son). This is a very pretty movie and Dolan uses music, moving cameras (dollies or steadicams) and slow motion very well. It is easy to fall in love with the characters, the way they fall in love with one another, because they’re all beautiful people. The costumes are also wonderful and the hair is great too.

Dolan has done his homework and done it well. It’s clear that he’s has watched a lot of early Almodovar and David Lynch. I think the colorful post-coital scenes (shot in baths of colorful light, first, red, then yellow, then green, then blue) is an homage to Godard’s Le Mepris (which, you just saw, I think, Alex, no?) That suggests the darker side of their relationships -that they might not be good people users. 

What does it mean that we both saw the exact same narcisissm theme here? (Blogger, heal thyself.) I was very happy with the (first) ending where Marie chases after Nicolas down the street and he seems to not care about her (a great line of dialogue there, by the way). The epilogue is a big mess and turns the story around in a way that I really didn’t like. It seems that Marie and Francis are dicks and makes you feel sorta bad for Nicolas (who really is the villain of the film). I don’t see the point of this other than to say that “all people are assholes – don’t trust them”. The earlier idea, that narcissists take in people who feel amazing around them and then ditch them, is much more interesting.

I do have to say, Alex, that I liked the When Harry Met Sally… interviews with the kids talking about their breakups. Knowing full well that it’s a cliche convention there is a freshness to those moments. Sure, the movie would work well without them, but they do set a tone of youth and contemporary gestalt that is important for a film (with two stars who dress like they’re from the ’50s/’60s). Besides, all the girls who were interviewed were cute… maybe I should move to Montreal.

Alex: Actually I fell asleep about 20 minutes into Le Mepris (aka Contempt) but the first scene alone proves the connection. (I wasn’t bored, I was tired. Eager to see the film. I confess to a woeful lack of literacy re: Godard.)

I hate those interviews in When Harry Met Sally also. And I really really really hate them in Up in the Air. I just generally hate the device.

Meanwhile, even though we both find the epilogue unnecessary, I interpreted it differently. I don’t think it pitches our central twosome as predatory or cruel. I see it as the re-starting of a cycle of dependency. They continue to be vulnerable to a certain kind of personality, and what it suggests is that their infatuation is always going to be a shared infatuation; Francis doesn’t seem to get hung up on anyone unless Marie is there to get hung up along with him, and vice versa. (And we’ve seen both of them, separately, with their own lovers, in whom they seem hardly interested.)

But we agree it changes the pitch of those two characters in a way that’s simplistic and, I think, unrealistic. The movie just doesn’t need this epilogue, and it’s richer without it.

Aaron: That’s a good point about the epilogue. I think there is a taste of pity that I feel for them. They’re so flaccid as personalities that they can neither be decent to Nicolas, who seems particularly harmless at this moment, nor can they change their ways. I guess my feelings stem from the fact that with the slow motion that Dolan uses to show them crossing the room for their next infatuation target, it almost seems like they’re stalking new prey. What it is really is more like they’re “artistically” moving in to talk to a hot guy… because everything they do is rather overdone (from clothes and hairdos to emotional fixations). I like the idea that they’re complicit in being taken in by the narcissist (or the next narcissist), but it’s just the execution of it here that is a bit clumsy. Being that he’s 22, I’ll give Dolan a pass on this issue.

You’re right about the interview device being dumb. I guess I liked the ambiguity that you mentioned at the beginning that they could be real people, could be scripted and seem more casual than such a convention normally is.

Le Mepris is a tremendous film and right in the middle of Godard’s best, most comprehensible work (which would end by ’67 or so). Drink a freaking Red Bull, Alex, and man up for it again… otherwise, you’ll be a quitter like Tiger Woods!

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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