Aiming to be a Quebecois “Jules and Jim” by way of Wong Kar Wai, Xavier Dolan’s gorgeous, mushy “Heartbeats” is instead simply a classic example of style over substance. But as looks can often be a heartbreaker’s chief attribute, Dolan’s googly-eyed two-guys-and-a-girl romantic comedy (the follow-up to his precocious fest hit “I Killed My Mother”) does prove an alluring companion for most of its running time. Splashy colors, oddball framing, super-cool threads and cranked-up retro music supply the pic’s bizarre love triangle with a dance-club atmosphere that’ll seduce young auds of most any orientation. Distributors, too, shall swoon.
Less boldly eccentric and more familiar than “Mother,” “Heartbeats” finds writer-director-actor Dolan overcoming the sophomore slump by courting a wider audience. At regular intervals throughout his tale of two friends in love with the same cruelly elusive guy, Dolan drops in faux-documentary interviews with other pretty young things holding forth on the modern universals of heartbreak — thwarted desire, missed connections, agonizing e-mail breakups, etc.
Following an introductory batch of such comically pained testimonies, Dolan, with great visual economy and flair, establishes that Nicolas (Niels Schneider), newly arrived in Montreal from parts unknown (perhaps a fashion shoot), is drop-dead beautiful, and that Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) will be the ones doing the dropping. Instantly and bitchily competitive with one another for Nic’s scant attention, the pals separately scramble to make use of rare intel on their crush’s likes and dislikes, with his rating on the Kinsey scale accepted by both as malleable.
For his part, the director hardly makes a secret of his own preferences. An early bedroom scene between bored Marie and an unfulfilling male partner is bathed in red light a la Godard’s “Contempt.” Periodically, Dolan’s camera trails behind Marie in a form-fitting dress as she sashays in slo-mo to the beat of a violin-heavy version of “Bang Bang,” the thick Wong-ian influence falling somewhere between plagiarism and homage.
As in “Mother,” Dolan takes a playful approach to pained relationships until such time as pain wins out. For more than an hour, neither Francis nor Marie seems much ahead in the race to unzip Nic’s fly, which threatens to turn the object of desire — if not “Heartbeats” itself — into an unforgivable tease. Eventually, the trio’s ill-advised camping trip shifts the romantic weight in a way that allows Dolan to bring his movie over the finish line, but not before several tacked-on endings.
The three leads don’t often have much to do besides look hot and hopelessly romantic, but they do it well (Dolan sporting a perpetual frown and an Elvis-esque do, Chokri making like Maggie Cheung in “In the Mood for Love” and Schneider with curly blond bangs that flop over his eyes, the better to characterize Nic as inscrutable).
In his second film, Dolan continues to flaunt a fabulously tactile sense of color, shape and texture; one feels the director is trying to make every shot as vivid and engrossing as possible. Indeed, in purely technical terms, “Heartbeats” — edited, art-directed, and costume designed by Dolan himself — is no small triumph, particularly given the production’s tiny scale.