FILM “I’m not stupid.”
For most filmmakers, that goes without saying, but Xavier Dolan is careful to acknowledge both his talents and limitations. The 21-year-old French Canadian auteur, who wrote, directed, and starred in 2009’s I Killed My Mother, returns with the romantic farce Heartbeats. “I honestly did the film knowing that I would obviously not invent anything,” Dolan admits. “This is not revolutionary directing or writing.”
He is not, as he maintains, stupid: Dolan insists that only an ignorant filmmaker would write a story of unrequited love and label it unique. While the style of Heartbeats is very much Dolan’s creation, the film and its director are conscious of their influences.
“Everything in cinema, for me, has been done before the ’30s,” Dolan says. “And everything since has been repeated or recycled or renewed in some way. I’m not going to pretend to invent anything.”
Rather than run from the comparisons, Dolan embraces them, peppering Heartbeats with homages to the films, art, and literature that have inspired him. While the story is simple — friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) both fall for stunning stranger Nicolas (Niels Schneider) — Dolan’s visual references give his film weight. As with his first movie, he draws from personal experience. But Heartbeats is more an amalgamation of stories than Dolan’s singular experience.
“I Killed My Mother is, like, 97 percent autobiographical,” he notes. “The three percent is just to please my mother, because she doesn’t want me to say it’s 100 percent true. Heartbeats is not as autobiographical in the sense that it’s inspired from various love stories that I have recycled for the film.”
In some ways, Heartbeats is familiar territory — and not only because Dolan once again takes on writing, directing, and acting duties. The filmmaker made sure it was different enough to show his progress but still within his sensibilities.
“I didn’t want to go over this mother-and-son-bond-thing again, so that people would say I was repeating myself,” Dolan explains. “But I still had the feeling that I had to stay close to my skin in order to interest people and not look like I was talking about shit I didn’t know.”
As for taking on multiple roles, Dolan concedes a love of creative control, but he also notes that Canadian cinema is more open to a singular vision than America’s collaborative model. Though he is quick to commend those who helped him on Heartbeats, the end result is the film he wanted to make.
Sometimes, multitasking is a matter of necessity. “It’s a pleasure for me to act,” Dolan says. “It’s my first job and my first passion, but I’m not acting anymore. People won’t employ me. I’m the only person who will give myself a job as an actor.”
In talking to Dolan, one finds a fascinating blend of humility and ego, both linked by his sincerity. The filmmaker speaks with a rare openness, an honesty that infuses his films and elevates them past typical reflections of 20-something angst. I’d argue that the success of Dolan’s efforts is thanks, in part, to his persistent self-awareness.
“People are saying that any other student could do as well with an HD cam, and yeah, sure, I guess they could,” he says. “What can I do? My goal in life is not to convince and seduce and be loved by everyone — I’m not a fascist. I just want to do my films, and if people follow, I will be pleased.”
Which is not to say Dolan suffers from a lack of pride or ambition. “I’m a very narcissistic person,” he continues, “and I think that even if everybody hated my films, I would keep doing them.” * HEARTBEATS opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.