Heartbeats, the second feature from 21-year-old wunderkind Xavier Dolan, is an Instagram of the Way We Fuck Now—or, more precisely, the way gorgeously costumed and coiffed French-Canadian early twentysomethings fuck and/or fail to fuck, while tripping over their own misguided attempts to land in love. The film bounces between montages of faux-interviews with young lovelorns—shot with “documentary”-style jerky zooms, establishing that Dolan’s interest in generational anthropology is more style than substance—and an equally superficial narrative dissecting the passive aggression of young lusters.
At a dinner party, Marie (Monia Chokri) points her gay bestie, Francis (Dolan), toward Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a stranger wearing plastic heart-shaped sunglasses with a halo of unkempt blond curls. “Who’s the Adonis?” she asks, her voice lilting just enough that she could pass off the reference to the Greek beauty as ironic or not, depending on Francis’s reaction. He’s just as ambiguously cool, and with neither friend brave enough to admit their crush, both begin to casually woo Nicolas. The three hop around Montreal together as an ostensibly platonic unit, Marie and Francis laboring to hide their seduction tactics from each other while transmitting the message to their common adored.
But which one does Nicolas want? Is he straight or gay, pansexual or asexual? Francis and Marie obsessively catalog his every gesture and aside, but the clues he drops only muddle the matter.
With Nicolas a closed book, the director fetishizes the ways in which the friends-turned-rivals betray their hidden feelings. His slow-motion montages set to dreamy torch songs mock chain-smoking retro-fashion victim Marie and the emo Francis for sabotaging themselves by caring too much. Next to Nicolas, a laconic mess, the over-styled would-be seducers look like they’re in drag.
If Dolan is able to derive a certain comic tension from the simple threat of what could happen with these three in close quarters, he and his co-actors often spoil the mystery of the unsaid with the tells on their faces. When one pair is having a moment, Dolan inevitably trains his camera on the knowing gaze of the one left out—never so perfectly as when Nicolas lets a smirk slip while watching Francis and Marie fight over him.
Too bad that smirk is the closest Dolan comes to any kind of insight into his characters’ behavior. From the dinner-party scene on, Dolan defines them by what they look like and how they look at one another, too often indulging in those gazes without critiquing them. An undeniable triumph of artifice, Heartbeats acts as a kind of bizarro fantasy mirror, aestheticizing and glamorizing the madness that arises from unrequited sexual obsession, as drunk on beauty and blind to truth as its deluded singles.