It’s bad enough that the freaky assured Heartbeats was directed by a 21 year old. But it gets worse: It’s his second film. Québecois wünderkind Xavier Dolan’s acidic I Killed My Mother may have only scored a tiny theatrical release last year, but it was beloved enough to set the bar unbearably high for his follow-through. Dialed down, Heartbeats proves the debut was no fluke, treating us to an amusing and self-effacing report from the front trenches on how kids today bone—a subject typically handled by olds like Larry Clark and Gregg Araki.
With a towering Lyle Lovett ’do, Dolan plays youth Francis who, with retro-coutured friend Marie (Monia Chokri), develops an instant crush on curly-topped himbo Nicolas (Niels Schneider). Immediately these besties are engaged in passive-aggressive war: Nicolas, whose orientation is unknown for much of the picture, showers affection on them both, with no clear winner. When they share a bed, as happens more than once, he takes the ambiguous middle. Nicolas drunkenly gnaws on Francis’ ear; at the same party, he spends an eternity engaged in a pre-snog position with Marie. Whoever’s not on the receiving end is driven mad with jealousy, leading to heartbreak both inevitable and slightly unpredictable in its particulars.
Even if his take on a menage a trois of unrequited love weren’t sharply drawn—and it is—Dolan at least has style to burn. His influences are right there on his sleeve: behold fetishistic slow-mo scenes set to old pop songs (Wong Kar-Wai), casually fluid sexuality (Gregg Araki), hook-ups bathed in primary colors (Jean-Luc Godard) and source music spanning classical to hip-hop (Arnaud Desplechin), to say nothing of the film’s deeply ingrained Woody Allen-isms. Peppered throughout are another old standby: quippy anthropological faux-interviews, performed with other lovelorn young adults. This gimmick undercuts, not reinforces, the subject of youthful, melodramatic love, which Dolan precociously mocks; He already knows that the volcanic feelings that initially seem all-encompassing will feel silly in retrospect. Dolan is still searching for his own, wholly unique voice, but he can take his time finding it.