Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

‘THE eternal triangle’ has always offered fertile territory for film-makers – emotion at its most intense, the opportunity for intimate character study and, with a good script and the right actors, a genuinely moving and resonant end product.

And, of course, it works best when the triangle has unequal sides. Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, even George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid riff on the basic premise – that someone’s love is bound to be unrequited – with additional complications (war, sexuality, family ties) that serve to explore what we really mean by those eternal but elusive concepts ‘friendship’ and ‘love’.

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Dolan’s warm, witty and stylish second feature is an honourable addition to that illustrious canon, taking a perceptive, sympathetic look at three French-Canadian twentysomethings on a very recognisable collision course.

Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Xavier Dolan) are great mates. She’s straight, he’s gay. She smokes like a chimney that’s obsessed with collecting cigarette coupons; he’s got the best Fifties quiff since Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede. Both share a passion for retro chic, a way with a witty put down and a full (if not perhaps entirely fulfilling) love life. Their life in the student-y quarter of Montreal is a busy round of parties, avant-garde cinema and theatre and generally having fun.

Clearly, it’s too good to last, and the serpent in paradise takes the form of Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a beautiful but somewhat naive arrival from the country. Marie and Francis take him under their wing and at first the ménage seems to be platonically perfect; the trio share coffee, social outings and even a bed without anything complicated rearing its ugly head.

But inevitably Cinematic Golden Rule No. 427 kicks in and both best buds find themselves falling for the new kid in town. Jealousy, mistrust and the plain old pain of unrequited love ensue and it becomes increasingly apparent that the bonds between Marie and Francis are being stretched to breaking point...

Indeed, we’ve been here before and you may find yourself guessing the next twist that the trio’s relationship will take. But in a way this adds to the poignancy. For all their air of worldly sophistication, Marie and Francis are as prone to feeling hurt and confused as anyone when the course of true love obstinately refuses to run smooth.

And it becomes increasingly obvious that, though he may look like Michelangelo’s David, have some reasonably interesting career plans and spout the usual bromides about the usual ‘arty’ and ‘cool’ stuff, Nicolas isn’t quite the metrosexual Renaissance Man the other two would like him to be. In fact, he seems more of a tabula rasa, on which Marie and Nicolas project their ideal image of what the perfect lover should be.

But he’s clever enough to realise that staying enigmatic and elusive is the best way to keep them both keen; worldly enough to realise that he has a power over them; and flawed enough to enjoy exercising it...

In the wrong hands, this could be an interminable angst-fest in which self-obsessed and unpleasant characters whinge about how terrible it is that the world isn’t always nice to them. Or a self-consciously nihilistic attempt to convince the audience that it’s all like, really pointless, anyway, yeah? (as innumerable would-be-cool American indies constantly attempt to tell us).

Thankfully, Dolan likes his characters and understands them better than they understand themselves. Marie and Francis, in particular, are, despite their pretensions, pleasant enough people who just want to be happy and are finding that’s not always as easy as it sounds. But Dolan the writer has an ear for the comic potential of their neuroses and constant self-analysis that recalls Woody Allen at his best (yes, the earlier funny ones).

He’s aided by excellent performances all round. Chokri is a luminous screen presence but a warm, natural actress too, with the air of a younger Marion Cotillard. Schneider radiates easygoing charisma mixed with a darker, more manipulative streak. And Dolan resists the temptation to put himself centre stage, making Francis a subtle, downplayed study of innocence and vulnerability.

As a director, he really gets under the skin of an unfamiliar setting – Montreal’s bohemian demi-monde of cafes and student-digs, where elements of French and American youth culture collide. There’s a cracking soundtrack too, and the action is broken up by some wonderfully acerbic direct to camera pieces by characters who obviously share the same background as the protagonists, outlining in hilariously forensic detail just how rubbish some of their partners have been; imagine the When Harry Met Sally vignettes reimagined by jaded French Generation X-ers.

All in all, a lot to enjoy. The curse of the multi-hyphenate (Dolan also has credits as co-producer and editor, as well as ‘Costumes’ and ‘Graphic Design’) does strike occasionally; it’s a bit long and some scenes work better than others. It’s a narrowly-focused world which sometimes feels a little claustrophobic, though that may be deliberate, and sometimes you will feel like just telling these little narcissists to lighten up a bit. But those are minor quibbles. Dolan – in all his incarnations – has proved himself a name to watch here.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2011
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Heartbeats packshot
Two close friends find the bond between them tested when both fall in love with the same man.
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Director: Xavier Dolan

Writer: Xavier Dolan

Starring: Xavier Dolan, Niels Schneider, Monia Chokri, Anne Dorval, Marie-Christine Cormier, Louis Garrel, Perrette Souplex

Year: 2010

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Canada

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