Navigating the ménage à trois with elegant indifference, Xavier Dolan’s Les Amours Imaginaires is a glorious feast of colour and rancid joie de vivre. Who said anything about subtle?
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If Xavier Dolan’s debut film J’ai Tué Ma Mère was a screeching queer rendition of Les 400 Coups, here Dolan tries his hand at another of Truffaut’s best loved films, Jules et Jim. Of course, it’s not Catherine at the centre this time, but Nicolas, a nubile young seraph, open-minded enough to keep both his suitors guessing. There’s lashings of Wong Kar Wai (by the hundreds and thousands) and even some falling marshmallows to boot, but underneath the stylistic toppings, there’s such an unbelievable energy to Les Amours Imaginaires it’s impossible not to be swept along in the sugar rush.
Scripted over two weeks while presenting J’ai Tué Ma Mère at the Toronto International Film Festival, Les Amours Imaginaires came rapidly to life after funding for another project fell through. And unable to bear the prospect of not having a project on the go, Dolan boldly put what money he could behind Les Amours Imaginaires to get the ball rolling. Just as embarrassingly intimate and confessionally sincere as J’ai Tué Ma Mère, Les Amours Imaginaires beats though to a different drum, its colour palette more vibrant, its script less verbose. Even its story is more universal, not exactly straight-washed, but with its parallel stories of unrequited and ultimately unreturned loves, the film maintains an elegant balance which just keeps it from tipping into the queer cinema catalogue.
Its narrative is familiar – the impossible threesome. Perhaps not as tragic as Jules et Jim, but equally desperate. Nico’s happy to be the centre of attention in a chaste trio of wannabe Jean-Paul Belmondos and Anna Karinas, complete with Sixties stripes and boater, but when it turns to sex, he’s out. The young Apollo is idolised by the swooping birds of prey – Marie daydreams to Michelangelo’s David while Francis’ fantasies are all Cocteau erotica and marshmallows. The story is interspersed with documentary-style talking heads waxing cynical about lost loves and with Bach-scored and pantone-lit lovemaking sequences, Les Amours Imaginaires is a sensory feast. Maybe the obtrusive focus-pulling in this faux-vérité lacks subtlety and perhaps the In The Mood For Love slow-mos are more than a guilty pleasure, but they do find resonance in one interview, where a break-up is described as a long, lingering slow-no. And it’s fair to say the stylishness of Dolan’s sequences en ralenti, set to Dalida’s Italian version of the Nancy Sinatra classic Bang Bang, belie a bewitching nervousness as the heartstrings of Marie and Francis are wound ever tighter.
The performances of the three leads are pitch-perfect, and both Monia Chokri and Xavier Dolan have the eyebrow-raise and disgruntled side-smile down to a fine art. The rising tensions between the two best friends are anxiously palpable. A wicked web of envy, oneupmanship and unrequited yearning, they elegantly elbow their way into Nico’s affections, constantly battling for his attentions. And their clever machinations are delicious – “Fancy you coming to this Vietnamese deli?” Their piqued jealousy heartbreaking, Marie screaming to herself over and over on finding the boys still up the next morning “Je m’en fous! Je m’en fous!” And they’re not always likable either. Francis is sulky, at times horrendous – hissing like a cat when Nico finally returns. And Marie’s sarcastic smile at three party gawpers, is no more than an animalistic defence hiding her delicate vulnerability. Their pain, normally so nicotine-controlled, finally oozes out; Marie confesses to her hairdresser that this was the one, all she wants is someone to spoon with. While Francis sobs uncontrollably, in bed with the wrong guy.
It’s heartbreaking. Francis emptying his heart at Nico’s feet only to score another mark on his Robinson Crusoe wall of failed loves. Or the final snub from Nico, “How could you think I was gay?” But it’s also hilarious. And Dolan’s witty script is full of wry (and self-deprecating) observation and bitter-experience rancour. Maybe there’s not enough of the friendship between Marie and Francis, or enough anxiety over the friendship they’re jeopardising. And it’s a shame the three of them never seem to just have fun, passing straight from feigned indifference to Audrey Hepburns at dawn. But finally it’s a vicious cycle, as the rivalling Furies head for the next one – Louis Garrel, in a nod to Bertolucci’s own unhappy ménage à trois The Dreamers. Locked in an unending cycle of elegant bitterness, let’s hope Dolan has something else up his cinematic sleeve for the next one.
Heartbeats is released in the UK on May 27th 2011.