The provocative young Canadian indie filmmaker Xavier Dolan seems fascinated by relationships, starting with his 2009 debut, “I Killed My Mother.” The semiautobiographical film about a 16-year-old gay teen battling it out with his bourgeois mom was something of a sensation at Cannes that year, picking up directors’ fortnight and youth prizes.
He’s back provoking emotions and being intriguing in “Les Amours Imaginaires” (“Heartbeats”), with best friends — a girl and a guy, straight and gay, respectively — both falling for the same enigmatic young poet. Our troika of possible young lovers comprises Marie (Monia Chokri), Francis (Dolan) and Nico (Niels Schneider), the handsome blond hunk making bedroom eyes at both — or so they think.
Dolan, who wrote, directed, edited, art directed and costume designed the film, in addition to his star turn, has a great feel for hip Montreal sophisticates, bright twentysomethings whose dinner parties reek of vintage chic and deep conversations. He also has a great eye. With cinematographer Stephanie-Anne Weber Biron, they’ve made “Heartbeats” into a stylish affair on nearly no budget. There is a cleverness in the film’s many tight shots that do double duty — playing to the intimacy of the piece as well as eliminating the need for elaborate sets.
The film begins with video clips of a handful of strangers, essentially individual confessionals about all the ways their past romances have gone wrong. These are spliced throughout the film to add context to the ups and downs of the evolving, then unraveling, ties that bind Nico, Marie and Francis. Dolan is proving to be adept at and unafraid of teasing out the flaws of his characters, seemingly more concerned with whether they are interesting than whether an audience will like them.
Marie is both insecure and a bit of a snot, nearly everything in her world falling slightly below her standards, particularly the men she beds when she feels the need. She favors a mod look and combs thrift stores to achieve it. Even her hair is a modern twist on a ‘50s poof. In Francis she’s got the perfect companion, an arty-looking elitist with a perpetual sexy pout and someone who enjoys the sniping as much as she.
The story begins to unfold with the two of them making dinner for their circle of friends and sizing up the newcomer, someone’s country cousin, who’s tagging along. Despite their apparent lack of interest, telegraphed in raised eyebrows and uninterested shrugs, they are clearly both intrigued.
Soon enough the two fast friends become three, and the complications begin. What makes these too-precious characters appealing, in spite of themselves, is the web Dolan spins around the evolving intimacy among them. The miscues and missteps are universal in that mating ritual between those who want (that would be Marie and Francis) and those who probably really care (that would be Nico).
There are risky plot choices all along the way, but the risks are what keeps the pot boiling as the complexities of the relationship triangle heat up and cool down.
It all serves to make “Heartbeats” a delightful romance of surprising depth, and Dolan, about to turn 22, someone you expect will be prodding and poking us to rethink things for years to come.