Friday, March 18, 2011

Films du Fleur de Lys: Les amours imaginaires

Les amours imaginaires/Heartbeats (2010, Xavier Dolan)

One of Québec’s rising stars in the field of cinema is Xavier Dolan. He has not even reached his twenties yet, but already he has had two major critical successes released in the province in back to back years, What’s more, his feature film debut, J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed my Mother), was adored at the 2009 Cannes film festival. What more could a young up and coming writer-director ask for? With knowledge that he is currently working on a third film, Laurence Anyways, one could even consider him to be ‘prolific,’ despite that he remains rather green in movie world. For his sophomore effort, Les amours imaginaires , Dolan returns to some thematic material explored in his previous feature. Suppressed emotions characters wrestle with for too long until it becomes too late as well as love-hate relationships that spring from the simplest yet also most complicated of things are a lot of what drives the stories Dolan shares. There is also the small matter of 'tough love.'

There is no personified villain in Les Amours imaginaires. All conflict that arises in comes from within, based on selfishness and greed to a certain extent. However, neither money nor success is the object of contention between long time friends Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Sophie (Monia Chokri). What puts their bond under unbearable strain is the arrival of a new boy, Nicholas (Niels Schneider) into their group of friends. Almost instantly, Francis and Sophie feel an attraction towards the striking young buck.  He has good looks, seems rather well educated, and his laid back, friendly attitude make him a much desired catch for any girl or gay boy. At first, Francis and Sophie, both gifted with their own off kilter tics and fashion sense, do not openly express their infatuation with Nicholas, preferring to keep their desires bundled up inside. The longer they hesitate to reveal what is really happening in their minds and hearts, the greater the sense of rivalry emerges between the two. Nicholas himself does not make things any simpler for our dynamic duo, continuously hugging and kissing them on the cheek whenever they meet, being so open and fun loving. Is he straight? Is he gay? Is he bi? It is clear that both Sophie and Francis have made up their own minds about the matter. The only thing left is to express how they truly feel…

What a difference one film makes! The director’s first effort, J’ai tué ma mere, was good. It showed much promise from young Dolan, presenting some biting, clever dialogue scenes and a marvellous performance from Anne Dorval (who in fact returns in Les amours imaginaires, but only for a cameo. It is a darn good one however). There was something about that project that, for lack of a better term, had a ‘school project’, or ‘first timer’ feel about it. Granted, the movie’s budget was not very high, but more than that, the characters frequently had to express themselves in remarkably dramatic fashion, hinting that Dolan most likely had a lot of emotional weight to get off of his chest and used his first feature as a venue to do just that. This time around, Dolan has made a movie. The man behind the camera is traversing an exciting period of his life, one in which he is not only maturing as a person, leaving adolescence and entering early adulthood, but also maturing as an artist within his professional field. ‘Professional’ is the key word here, for Les amours imaginaires could not have been made by anybody else other than a professional. The level of maturity in the camera work, the storytelling, both subtle and melodramatic, the acting, the music, all of it is handled with fantastic detail, with every one of those different aspects coming together to make a memorable movie that is rich in emotion and, by the end, completely satisfying. Dolan has an excellent grasp of the emotional journey his characters are thrust into once Nicholas enters their lives. He takes things slowly, hinting at some rising discomfort felt by Sophie or Francis whenever Nicholas is having a charming, intimate moment with the other. The audience cannot escape the discomfort, and so they march onwards with the trio, knowing full well that at some point the status quo shall no longer suffice.

Dolan, Chokri and Schneider all deliver their lines perfectly. Schneider is awarded somewhat less screen time, which helps preserve the aura of mysticism about his character and the attraction the other leads are supposed to feel towards him.  In the game of love, one gives a little to tease and then leaves the other wanting for more, and the strategy works wonders, both on the viewer and on Francis and Sophie. Dolan is great as Francis, a young man stuck in a position where giving in to his inner most desires would do nothing but harm to his friendship with Sophie. He is a nice, but very nervous and shy lad, which equally makes his predicament difficult to wrestle with. Chokri is just as solid as Sophie, a twentysomething girl whose fashion tastes are reminiscent of what house wives used to wear back in the 1950s. Whether relaxing at a café, sitting at home or visiting a cottage in the countryside, she always looks like a blast from the past. Like Francis, she can get nervous too, but expresses by saying the wrong things and beating herself up for it afterwards. While Dolan provides the two protagonists certain specific quirks, he never goes overboard. In fact, Francis, Sophie and Nicholas all feel very real, which is what impressed me the most about them. Therein lies the film’s greatest strength: keeping things believable even though the film has odd looking characters (a comment that is not meant in any derogatory way. The author lived a couple of years in a part of Montréal which had plenty of people who behaved like Francis and Sophie do. They’re fine people).

The one storytelling decision some film reviewers might have trouble with are three short sequences which feature young adults deliver rants and monologues about love, sexual desire (both straight and gay) and the pains that follow breakups. The scenes are only about 5 minutes each and have the camera rest on 3 or 4 different faces that are taking off as though in a conversation with others, possibly the other 3 or 4 people who also get their turn to speak. There is a brief hint that these people are possibly acquaintances of Francis and Sophie, but other than that, they could be total strangers who were simply captured on film (within the world of the movie, not for real) as they shared their exasperations about relationships. A bit too much on the nose? Maybe that is an accurate description, but the performances from all the actors are great and what they have to say, at it is all said and done, is honest and true.

Xavier Dolan lends his sophomore effort a more polished cinematographic style. More dynamic steady cam shots, complimented with the implementation of some beautiful slow motion scenes. The slow motion re-appears multiple times throughout the film, but never does it feel abused. Quite the contrary, it always happens at the right time and brings the right amount of depth to a given scene. Thematically it works perfectly because the emotional arc Francis and Sophie are living is drawn out by the nature of their awkward silence towards the true feelings that drive them to stay in touch with Nicholas. What should be dealt with quickly to avoid less pain is stretched out more than necessary because that is the type of game our hearts play when love is the prize. The slow motion represents this dragging process, one that does cease until very late when things have become too palpable to remain under the lid. The lighting is also exquisite for reasons I am having great difficulty elaborating on. It is very naturalistic in some scenes, while lovingly playful in others. Two scenes stood out in particular for the excellent lighting, one being the party scene when Francis and Sophie look at Nicholas dance with his own mother, the other being an sunset scene when the trio are outside Nicholas’ country house. The music is, ahem, instrumental to conveying the character’s thought process. No original score was attempted however. Instead, it is a surprisingly eclectic soundtrack which graces the viewer’s ears and gives that extra special flavour to the movie. From Bach cello suite to Run DMC’s Jump Around, a massive range of musical pieces and songs are utilized, sometimes in unorthodox ways.

Truthfully, Xavier Dolan has taken giant steps forward in his understanding and handling of film. Cinematography, editing, acting, story beats, everything fits neatly into place. The results are there in the plain open for anyone to see.

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