Stylish Love: Xavier Dolan’s Les Amours Imaginaires
A young man in his early twenties is illuminated against a blue backdrop in a medium length shot. Rows of golden curls the colour of the sun adorn his head and gently fall down past the olive skin and elongated nose of this beautiful man-boy. A primordial Greek beauty has been called from the white pillars and classical antiquity of archaic Greece. He is Alexander the Great or Hercules brought to life, and given a subtle 21st century makeover. Slowly a series of small white objects fall past his delicate features. They could be many things, clouds from Mount Olympus perhaps, but the camera cuts to a man standing in a convenience store frozen to the spot. He is scoffing back white sweets and we discover the white objects falling from the sky are in fact marshmallows.
This surreal image is a dream sequence from the new film by French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, Les Amours Imaginaires (English translation Heartbeats) a cinematic treatise on desire and lust and beauty. Characters in Les Amours Imaginaires long for each other obsessively and turn to their dreams as solace. Remember the opening of Luis Buñuel’s seminal work Belle du Jour where Catherine Deneuve fantasises about being raped and beaten during a carriage ride in a forest? A darkly, disturbing twist on both desire and the classical fairytale.
The plot of the film centres on a ménage a trois between three impossibly beautiful and stylish twentysomethings living in Quebec, Canada: shy and romantic Francis (Xavier Dolan), his best friend Marie (Monia Chokri) and the object of their affection Nicholas (Niels Schneider). Francis and Marie both fall obsessively in love with Nicholas and as they slowly give into their obsession their friendship begins to suffer.
Les Amours Imaginaires is catnip to hipsters. The protagonists look and dress like catwalk models with their bright pink skinny jeans, wicker boating hats and silver cigarette cases. This is cinema as Vogue. A film that is driven not by plot points or even substantial character development but by mis-en-scène: costume, set design and cinematography, arguably neglected components of cinema. In one sequence the camera lavishly observes Marie as she walks down a sidewalk in ultra slow motion, the audience having the time to soak up everything on screen. She is smoking a cigarette with her hair glamorously tied up in a bun and there are numerous close up shots of the plum coloured silk dress she is wearing. The viewer is placed in the body of someone in the front row of a Jil Sander or Christopher Kane catwalk show. Beauty can be a surprisingly arduous sensation to capture on the big screen. Antoinioni, Fellini and Powell & Pressburger were all masters at it. Dolan has proven in Les Amours Imaginaires that he is fast becoming a deft hand at encapsulating pure beauty in celluloid.
Visually Les Amours Imaginaires cuts a perfect path. Making use of a rainbow colour scheme Dolan and his cinematographer Stephanie Anne Weber Brion pencil in each frame like a child with a box of crayons; lurid blue walls in a Vietnamese restaurant clash with autumnal leaves the colour of overexposed film. This striking colour palette brings to mind the work of Hong Kong stylist Wong Kar Wai and in particular his use of colour as a means to invoke a sense of passion between his lovers. The lemons and lime paint job in Happy Together helped to accentuate the alien environment and complex love between Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung. In his magnum opus In the Mood for Love Christopher Doyle dyed the hotel rooms and alleyways of the city in every shade of red. Wong Kar Wai’s obsession with human beauty, shooting his female protagonists (often Maggie Cheung) in slow motion wearing mouthwatering couture gowns, can also be found on the surface and in the heart of Les Amours Imaginaires.
During a scene where the three young ‘almost’ lovers take a trip to the countryside, a cottage by the sea, a fistfight erupts between Marie and Francis over who will claim Nicholas as their prize. As they fumble around on the forest floor Dolan and Brion spend most of the time shooting the fading summer leaves and bright dappled sunlight only find in the woods. Capturing beautifully the transition of a forest from summer to autumn on film, this in-between space in the forest reflects the uncertainty of Francis and Marie’s situation. Even at this point in the film they know that there will be no resolution for their relationship with Nicholas. They will always hang in the horrible void between friend and lover, just like a summer wood descends into the chill of autumn. The history book of cinema is littered with unfulfilled loves like these.
Looking to the spontaneity and modish chic of the Nouvelle Vague movies from the 60s, Dolan has crafted a film that pays homage to the likes of Truffaut and Godard. You can hear the influence of A Bout de Souffle’s jazz score in Les Amours Imaginaires arresting use of Bang Bang by Dalida, music being as important as images when it comes to expressing emotion in film. You can feel the presence of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim in this hip three way love triangle that Dolan and his actors concoct on the screen. At any moment you expect the three of them to pick themselves up and dash through the Louvre like the famous scene from New Wave staple Band of Outsiders. The location shooting and improvised dialogue found in the movie is at the centre of almost every new wave film. Les Amours Imaginaires is more than indebted to these filmmakers.
With an eye for a perfect composition and a feeling for the tragic elements of youthful love, Les Amours Imaginaires transcends other films hopefully, even desperately, vying for the label ‘cool’. For me, the film verges on the revolutionary, or certainly reimagines revolutionary elements from the past, through its innovative employment of striking photography and an endlessly pure stylistic sensibility. I found it stunning.
Christopher Smail is a Bermudan-born Scottish-based writer and student, currently studying for a degree in Film & Media at Stirling University. He is Arts Editor of the student newspaper, Brig, and is a keen photographer and art lover.