Les Amours Imaginaires
Directed by Xavier Dolan
Xavier Dolan: wunderkind, neighborhood pretty boy, purveyor of that specific brand of Franco Mile End hipster stories. Anyone who doesn’t know about Dolan’s rocket to film-fest fame last year with J’ai Tué Ma Mère is at least two steps behind the game. The 2009 flick was released on DVD with a collection of festival stamps across the cover, and gained Dolan the privilege to debut Les Amours Imaginaires at Cannes. Pas pire. Yet despite rumors of standing ovations and having already bagged some prizes, Dolan’s second feature received mixed reviews. It seems everyone agrees on one thing: the 21-year-old is talented and has potential. Everything else is debatable.
Plot-wise, Les Amours Imaginaires – painfully dubbed Heartbeats in English – is sparse. Two BFFs, one male, one female, are introduced to the Adonis-like Nico and fall in love. Nico teases and taunts them into rivalry, they both make ill-fated declarations, hearts are mangled, and the two BFFs come back together in the end.
Visually and cinematically, however, the plot thickens. Slow-mo is used in excess to capture that heart-wrenching combination of beauty, infatuation, and vulnerability that often comes with the young coup de foudre: music is used to echo the same feeling and guide the viewer’s emotional reaction to the film; and cinematic effects are heavily orchestrated in order to play the whole experience like a string puppet theatre. The result is a film that does exactly what it sets out to do.
But how many people are consciously considering what it’s doing? Dolan’s small but notable oeuvre can be exactly matched with the age of the director at the time of creation. Its themes are universal, yet very coming-of-age. But Dolan, I argue, will continue to age gracefully. When one examines the themes and content of both his films, the result is the rough equivalent to a film school education, albeit one mediated by prime audiences and a much more generous budget. And it’s clear that Dolan is doing everything in his power to ensure that the gods of cinema (those people responsible for pesky things like funding and distribution) allow him to continue to grow up on film. For this, the director deserves accolades.
Turning to Les Amours Imaginaires, the hyper-stylized aesthetic that critics have criticized as cliché, the focus on form over content, and the immediately palpable connection we feel to the subject, all seem incredibly strategic. Dolan is using the tricks of the medium to establish that, yes, he can manipulate form, he can be clever and referential with the best of them, and what’s more, he can control your subjective experience and align it with the vulnerability he’s trying to infuse into his picture. He can make a movie. And it will win awards. His whole project is actually very Tarantino. And isn’t that Tarantino, the king of the homage, being referenced with the exoticized version of Bang Bang? Or have you all forgotten Kill Bill?
As for form and content, those are the age-old themes being turned over anew. The material of his films however, now that’s interesting. Aside from the aforementioned coming-of-age tendencies, Dolan’s focus on young queer men (played by himself, of course) is both acutely connected with the spirit of the times, and trying to establish itself within a larger artistic context. And from a gender studies perspective, it’s kind of amazing.
First of all, Dolan shows a daring amount of vulnerability. That’s good. It makes his characters important to us, facilitating this “other side of queer” coin he’s flipping. That’s good too. The world needs this; in the midst of gay movies that are over the top, or too obsessed with their gayness, or just this side of sincerity, it’s a solid step forward. Artistically, it’s echoing a mythological kind of infatuation and hijacking the way film has made that heterosexual. And it’s doing it in a way we can easily digest while appealing to our own personal nostalgia, homo or hetero. Think Margot Tenenbaum arriving to meet Richie by way of the Green Line bus – slow motion, windblown hair, and Nico pulling our heartstrings too.
What really fascinates me, however, is the gender play that’s going on in both Les Amours Imaginaires and J’ai Tué Ma Mère. It hit me midway through the movie: Dolan’s females are really ugly – hideous, even – when juxtaposed with his beautiful and tragically wounded male characters. Once the realization hits, it becomes disturbing and unavoidable in every scene. The female, more specifically the female heterosexual, is grotesque. Everyone is “human,” as they say, in Dolan’s films, but the males are human in a yearning, aching, tender way. They are beautiful, distraught, mistreated. Their potential is crushed under the weight of oppression, and their tragic lives are immediately soliciting an emotional reaction from the viewer. The females on the other hand, are human in the cruel and calculating way. They are the ones who sabotage, selfishly oppress, and seethe with the desire to be vindicated for their suffering.
In Les Amours, Marie swoops in for the kill. She struggles to wedge Francis and Nico apart, and Francis humbly bows his head and gives her space, the sadness in his eyes telling us directly that he’s being wronged. It’s more than a rivalry. Although by the end it’s clear that Nico is a narcissist, the feeling throughout is that he’s rightfully Francis’. Behaviorally, both Marie and Nico’s mother are vulgar. This is reinforced by their individual obsessions with appearance, to the effect that aesthetically, they’re pretty damned vulgar too. Going back to J’ai Tué Ma Mère, the Mère in question, you’ll recall, was crippled by a wicked witch personality and the tackiest style in the universe. The juxtaposition is clear: males are the Adonis, females the crone. This pattern is repeated in the subtle differences in attitude between the female and male “confessors” who describe their obsessive loves in Les Amours. And it’s front and center in the difference between the way the male and female characters wear their clothes: Nico and Francis are stylish, Marie and mother dearest look remarkably like drag queens.
Bottom line: go see Les Amours Imaginaires, and if you haven’t seen J’ai Tué Ma Mère, watch that too. Watch them and meditate on strategy, branding, and the homosexual experience. Then hope to God Dolan learns to be kinder to his women.
– Marianne Perron