Three Imaginary Girls

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I brought earplugs to this screening, just in case, because Montreal wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother, was an absolute screechfest. Dolan, who was 17 when he wrote it and 20 when he directed it, played a rude teen son in a corrosive relationship with his tacky single mom. He screamed and hollered through the whole damn thing, and it’s a wonder his lungs (or my inner ears) ever recovered.

Happily, I ended up not needing protective gear at all for his latest effort — Dolan’s one lone shriek was actually welcome, and dare I say pleasant — and I left the theater quite enamored with Heartbeats. It’s a madly stylish achievement, a delightfully vivid pop pastiche, and one of the best cinema surprises of 2011 so far.

The film’s original French(-Canadian) title is Les amours imaginaires — translated literally as “imaginary loves” — and its story follows good friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) in their competitive fantasy-obsessions with a rich, new-to-the-city party kid named Nicolas (Niels Schneider). They learn, or at least begin to learn, how silly it is for friends to fuss n’ fight over an object of desire.

That’s really all you need to know about the plot, because this one’s about sparkle, baby. Stunningly flashy colors, off-kilter framing, hot threads, and cranked-up retro music supply the quirky lil’ love triangle with aesthetic treats aplenty. Edited, art-directed, and costume-designed by then 21-year-old (!) Dolan himself, the film never fails to deliver color/texture/shape combos that are almost tactile in presentation. There are stroboscope party sequences, lens-flared images of late-afternoon country sunshine, and monochrome bedroom scenes that will knock you upside the head with sensory pleasures. A mishmash of attractive surfaces: quite apt for a movie about the imagery of love.

But the actors aren’t just pretty faces. Chokri, who is like a young Christine Lahti with some Parker Posey and Mary-Louise Parker mixed in, plays Marie’s near-fetishistic preference for Audrey Hepburn-inspired midcentury form-fitting apparel very convincingly. Marie almost exclusively wears pinks and reds, and her flat’s palette follows suit. Then there’s broody Francis, with his blues and grays, no shrieking required. And Nicolas’s across-the-grid color sense adds to his mystery. (I often wondered what was so special about Francis to prompt such hysterical rigmarole, but Chokri and Dolan made me believe.)

The film alternates all the delectable mushiness with Husbands and Wives-esque montages of young lovelorns being faux-interviewed about their own thwarted desires, missed connections, and other assorted agonies. Many other elements seem familiar, too: aside from the Audrey fashion penchant, and the obvious François Ozon-ishness of the entire enterprise, the film pays homage to — ok, maybe rips off — Godard and Cocteau as well. And in a beautiful Wong Kar-Wai appropriation, Marie sports one of those red form-fitters while slo-mo sashaying to the beat of a violin-heavy version of “Bang Bang.” I died.

So this probably isn’t a film (or, by the looks of things, a director) for those who demand realism. But Heartbeats‘ artifice is its strength and its reward. Experience it for yourself, and be dazzled.