“Heartbeats,” a fluffy romantic soufflé, is introduced by an epigraph from the French poet Alfred de Musset: “The only truth is love beyond reason.” Well, I suppose if you’re as young and as besotted with cinematic dreams as Xavier Dolan, the 21-year-old Québécois who wrote, directed and edited this film, and also served as its art director and costume designer, that slogan makes a crazy kind of sense.
The French title, “Les Amours Imaginaires,” is a more precise description of this palpitating confection, a study of an unconsummated romantic triangle. Nicolas (Niels Schneider), an elusive dreamboat, is an extremely pretty, faintly androgynous visitor to Montreal, where he is simultaneously pursued by a young man and woman.
With his chiseled features, full lips and corona of dark gold curls, Nicolas becomes the instant object of desire of Marie (Monia Chokri), a chilly fashion-conscious young woman who reveres Audrey Hepburn, and of her earnest gay friend, Francis (Mr. Dolan), who meet him at the same party. The two spend much of the rest of film slyly pursuing Nicolas, while trying to gauge his sexual orientation, about which he is cagey.
“Heartbeats” is a kind of postadolescent “Jules and Jim” whose couplings take place in the imaginations of Marie and Francis, but not in reality. With no place to stay when he arrives in the city, Nicolas shares a bed with them, while they wait in vain for something to happen.
Marie and Francis’s friendship becomes increasingly competitive as they woo this nonchalant flirt with gifts and plan accidental meetings. The rivalry comes to a head when they all go to the country for a short vacation. Either Nicolas is so self-involved that he doesn’t notice their adoration, or he takes it as his due. As described by Mr. Dolan in the movie’s production notes, a secret of his allure is “a single teaspoon of indifference.”
The movie, which won a special youth prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is the second feature by Mr. Dolan. His directorial debut, “I Killed My Mother” (in which he also starred), is a semiautobiographical story about the love-hate relationship of a young man discovering his homosexuality and his mother, whom he alternately torments and clings to in uncontrollable emotional fits.
The new movie confirms Mr. Dolan as a wildly talented, carelessly extravagant filmmaker nakedly in thrall to idols like Wong Kar-wai, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodóvar. Mr. Dolan takes the “love beyond reason” theme as a license to pull out every trick in the book, including excessive slow-motion cinematography and flowery fantasy sequences. In one, Nicolas is visually compared to Michelangelo’s David and to Cocteau drawings. In another, marshmallows rain down around his shirtless torso.
Monologues delivered by assorted unidentified losers in love who relate their unhappy stories to an unseen listener lend “Heartbeats” the semblance of a structure. But beyond that, the movie is a gush of gorgeous images and music, from Wagner to a recurrent excerpt of “Bang Bang,” sung by the Egyptian-born French pop diva Dalida, who committed suicide in 1987.
Dalida, who had lost an ex-husband and two lovers to suicide, left a note that read, “La vie m’est insupportable … Pardonnez-moi” (“Life has become unbearable for me… Forgive me.”)
There you have the other side of “love beyond reason” that may await these characters, if they refuse to grow up emotionally.
Xavier Dolan’s delightful and insightful romantic comedy, in French from Québec, was originally called “Les Amours Imaginaires.” That’s closer to the truth than “Heartbeats,” though the cardiac muscle can thump with equal intensity for love that’s imagined or real.
On the surface—a conventional surface that falls away—the plot turns on a lopsided triangle. The dominant side is occupied by Nico (Niels Schneider), a curly-haired, impossibly seductive young man who looks like Michelangelo’s David and claims to be working in seismic geology. On the other sides are the victims-to-be of Nico’s seismic waves: Marie (Monia Chokri), a 20-something beauty who likes to wear vintage clothes, and her gay friend Frank, who is played by the writer-director, Mr. Dolan. (He was all of 21 when the movie was shot, and one year younger when he made “I Killed My Mother,” his semiautobiographical debut feature about himself as a young homosexual.)
The script abounds in witty repartee. Marie doesn’t know she’s a beauty—she considers her high intelligence a vital counterpoint to what she thinks are her banal looks—so she’s instantly and dangerously charmed when Nico uses the word ‘Manichean’ in one of their first conversations. Yet the movie hints at its real concern in an early slo-mo scene when Marie and Frank, coming from opposite directions, converge on a café where Nico awaits them.
Slow motion is a trope that’s much abused these days, partly because digital cinematography (done here stylishly by Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron), eliminates concern about how many feet of costly film are running through the camera. “Heartbeat” uses the technique extensively, but doesn’t abuse it. Instead, slo-mo represents the emotional state that’s at the movie’s heart—a state of anxious anticipation born of bottomless self-doubt. In that sense Marie and Frank are coming from exactly the same direction. Floating ever so slowly down a Montreal street, they’ve taken leave of their better selves, and are feverishly inventing imaginary love because they don’t think they’re worthy of the real thing.
“Heartbeat” is precocious to a fault. As if it’s not enough to examine the errant ways of love and sex through his three main characters, Mr. Dolan adds other characters and self-help chatter through the device of a therapy group. But the film couples high comedy with spiritual solitude. That’s not just a slo-mo stunt, it’s a cockeyed triumph.