The Montreal-born film-maker Xavier Dolan looks to be a bright young pup. For his second feature, Heartbeats (his first was the festival hit I Killed My Mother), he served as actor, writer-director, producer, editor, art director, costume designer – and quite possibly ran errands for the cast, too.
He was 21 at the time, and a certain hipster immaturity sometimes spills over in his indulgence of Nouvelle Vague tics: slo-mo, coloured lens, fantasy sequences, many wistful cigarettes, and too much zoom. But look instead to the brio and self-assurance that elevate this tale of unrequited love well above the ordinary. Its original French title, Les Amours Imaginaires, gives a better indication of what goes down when Francis (Dolan) and his best friend Marie (Monia Chokri) meet a tousled-blond Adonis named Nicolas (Niels Schneider) at a party and suffer a simultaneous coup de foudre.
What follows is a subtle and painfully amusing battle of wills between the smitten pair, both desperate to win the heart of Nicolas – who's as beautiful and enigmatic as Björn Andrésen as Tadzio in Death in Venice – and both uncertain as to his sexual orientation. Nicolas gives nothing away, sharing a bed with them, but chastely, and casually behaving as though adoration is his due. Dolan intersperses the narrative with talking heads, recalling their own unhappy amours, but the real fun of the movie is watching the sidelong looks of competitive angst clouding the faces of Francis and Marie. Will one of them withdraw from the fray politely, or will it come to fisticuffs and a falling out? The film keeps replaying the lovelorn ballad "Bang Bang", hauntingly sung by the Egyptian-French pop diva Dalida, who committed suicide in 1987. A verse runs: "Now he's gone I don't why/ And till this day sometimes I cry/ He didn't even say goodbye/ He didn't take the time to die/ Bang bang – he shot me down." That doomy romanticism is what inflames this movie; the bang-bang is all in Dolan's impudent technique.