A film review of HEARTBEATS / LES AMOURS IMAGINAIRES and a video interview
with actress MONIA CHOKRI by Timothy E. RAW
Oh how I miss the days of nineties new queer cinema. My Own Private Idaho, Safe, Swoon, The Doom Generation and High Art were just some of the benchmark titles amidst a slew of films shaking the form out of its sleeping giant complacency regarding gender politics, and sexual identification. Ideologically fearless and daring in their piss and vinegar anti-establishment stance, these films represented a new kind of sexuality on screen. Throat punch framings exposed and typified the bleeding vulnerability of their best-face-forward characters in sobering moments of identity crisis, an unforgettable example of which can be found in High Art, when Radha Mitchell's Syd finds herself being photographed in a truck. Staring down the camera lens we watch it break her haughty defenses before being thrust into a maelstrom of sexual awakening. Caught off guard in close-up, we glimpse not only the visual unraveling of many a protagonist, but in that same shot held just long enough to register as uncomfortable, a particular filmmaker's brazen questioning of their audience's unconscious subscription to sex as a binary stereotype rather than a spectrum, across which played an idiosyncratic and personal filmmaking style. High Art director, Lisa Cholodenko's reconfiguration of two-point-four children in her Oscar-baiting The Kids Are All Right was a slyly commercial reminder that almost twenty years on, the prominence of new queer cinema's moment in the sun had well and truly passed and the kind of questions the movement once poised are no longer being asked. These days you'd probably have to go to TV to find them. Todd Haynes, a leading practitioner of the scene has just directed the mini-series of Mildred Pearce for HBO, and currently, controversy is flaring over the sexual content of the US remake of hit TV show Skins in America. In a country increasingly regressing to its puritanical roots, this is hardly surprising. The new queer cinema explosion of the nineties was only ever destined to be short-lived.
In the years since, contemporary American media messages – especially those concerning sex – have become ensnared in a larger cultural debate of societal morality. Every sort of imaginable coupling outside of binary norms, (the kind which nineties new queer cinema once fought to give voice to) is now acceptably commonplace, if no less prejudicially judged. The challenge for a new generation is no longer subversion of, but adapting to fit in with or work alongside entrenched cultural mores. If you take a look at independent distributors whose catalogues are entirely devoted to queer cinema such as Peccadillo Pictures, the content of, and the questions those films raise are no longer the issue here, rather, the very existence of such a cannon which is incrementally expanding. In some quarters this is regarded as a natural and healthy development, while others would no doubt regard it as evidence of moral decline, concerned primarily with the pervasive influence on the next generation.
Tellingly of the once thriving American scene, most of Peccadillo's releases are foreign language and depressingly enough, even then, many films of recent queer cinema position their gay characters as a problem to be solved by the society into which they must assimilate themselves, instead of having them stand proudly apart as a viable alternative. Instead of just telling good stories in which the lead characters happen to be gay, their 'queerness' is nothing more than a plot mechanism. The Kids Are All Right is the only recent American film of a currently emaciated queer cannon that chooses to not make sexual preference an issue, asserting the film's central lesbian relationship as just like that of any other nuclear American family. Next month's UK release of Gregg Araki's Kaboom is by far his most optimistic and joyous tale of queer adolescence (despite the plot hinging on the end of the world) and if Araki's earlier 'teen apocalypse trilogy' (of which Kaboom is a direct descendent) taught us anything, it's that American society need not worry about the influence of queer cinema on its children since children are already sexual and will continue to be so, despite the best efforts of even the most puritanical God fearing republican.
Yet what does this say about the current state of American queer cinema, when its most excitingly orgasmic and celebratory gay film of 2011 is from a member the old queer vanguard?
Thank heavens then for Xavier Dolan, the French-Canadian wunderkid director whose second film at only twenty-two-years-old is a quietly insurgent work. On the surface, not much more than three people in a room with a gay twist, it's a spiky rebuttal to all the independent filmmakers searching for the next crossover hit and dressing down whatever made some coin at the box office. Dolan confidently shows us that the formative years of working within the constrains of meager budget need not let the panache of storytelling succumb to the low-fi indie trappings of the current mumblecore craze. Dolan isn't afraid to be visually dynamic and is just as bold with his palette; stylistically arch in a way that shows him to be so much more creatively free than his relatively inexperienced peers and just as ambitious, taking on so many different genres, and tones within a lean but impressively cine-literate ninety minutes. Dolan's film may take place in some cross-pollinated imagining of the 1950s to now and everything in-between, but where he was able to transport me specifically was the mid-nineties, where having just discovered new queer cinema, I was hearing the new and distinctive voices of Tom Kalin, Rose Troche and all of the aforementioned directors for the first time. If Dolan's effort shares anything with this list of luminaries it's that his film is both time-capsuled and timeless.
Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) are co-dependent, self-sabotaging BBFs, social misfits who are the very personification of the phrase 'misery loves company'. When they both fall in lust with the same aloof, uninterested golden-curled Uniqlo mannequin Nicolas (Niels Schineider) they quickly realise the only way to numb the pain of his total indifference is to undermine their love rival's standing with him: "It's okay to feel the pain of rejection, so long as I'm not the one it's hurting most." This stone-throwing rivalry has the daintiness of a snowball fight, as neither will admit to the other they have feelings for Nicholas, and neither dares come right out with a forthright declaration to Nicolas himself. The teenage angst of these severely regressed twenty-somethings plays out against a backdrop of fabulous materialist hegemony (the very thing much of nineties new queer cinema was in fact raging against), this is the kind of bedroom moping that never has a bad hair day, and at their worst these glamour kids are always dressed their best, in stunning vintage attire seen through an ever-present haze of dangled cigarette smoke and fetishized in retro pop song-fitted slow-mo so fashionistas might admire just how perfect their trust-fund fueled malaise is.
If this all sounds very off-putting to those of you who don't regularly outfit themselves in designer specs, chest-hair baring shirts and sailor stripes, I completely understand, as walking into this, I don't mind admitting, my knifes were very much out. But what at first irritated me beyond measure (a needlessly agitated camera that won't stay still confronts a preciously affected, bored-looking hipster princess, a perfectly disheveled picture under oversized frames) was able, by the halfway point, to convince me that such self-concious aesthetic gestures were serving to heighten the emotional stakes. This framing device of regularly intercutting candid interviews shot in a style right out of Godard's Masculin Féminin has teens commenting on their sex lives while our trio of leads remain tight-lipped and taciturn and is cleverly multiple-purposed. It gives voice to the feelings of misguided amour that our lovelorn rivals are unable to express, thus putting us in their headspace, where the kind of rejections we're hearing about from the lives of others have world-shattering consequences, letting us know exactly where Marie and Francis are at before we've even met them. Extending the scope of the world in which they live only goes how to show how wrapped up Marie and Francis are in their own self-made problems, refusing to acknowledge anything outside their own heads. Lending the film a pervasive air of ironic melancholia, everything we hear from others is but a relayed signal of the couple's own conceited despondency broadcast across a wider hipster subculture. This framing device of the wider hipster world also grounds the film's stylistic excess, asserting such moments of self-indulgent, pop promo shoegazing as demonstrations of emotions they aren't able to readily express like everyone else. Through a wider community, we hear about these quite lives of desperation, but through Marie and Francis' heightened visualization of their ennui we feel just how desperate they are. These interviews not only give us an impression of how the two of them don't fit in, despite their coordinated best efforts, but also predict that the reality of what they choose to ignore about themselves is something they'll eventually be forced to confront, whether they want to talk about it or not. Their insistence on living in tortured-but-achingly-hip daydreams is not living at all, an anxiety finally manifest in the film's hormonal hyperclimax.
In stylizing that which is unrequited and unfulfilled, Heartbeats would be all to easy to pick upon for burying itself under layers of cinematic reference, which consistently threaten to obfuscate any sense it's own discernable identity. Though at times veering dangerously close to fustian affectation, its Dolan's working knowledge of cinema history and how it informs his material on an emotional level that proves his worth as a filmmaker. His ingredients may be culled from a smorgasbord of decades past, but the fact he is able to coalesce so many bricabrac elements makes a convincing argument that he is a director of vision. Heartbeats would indeed make a great double bill with Submarine, both tales of the un-negotiable maze of heady nostalgia, featuring unsympathetic adolescents who are far from blameless and insufferably egotistical in their misappropriated put-upon world-weariness they can't possibly have earned yet. Richard Ayoade was wildly praised for informing his adaptation of Joe Dunthorne's novel with Nouvelle vauge angst to literally suggest the invisible camera crew following his protagonist at every turn, the imagined camera continually projecting the movie of our lives on the wall in our heads where we are all marquee stars. Though the adaptation itself was undoubtedly bold and brilliant, his Wes Anderson lite mimicry only felt schematic, a film school 101 classroom exercise, the kind of 'everything and the kitchen sink' exhalation of all your influences so as to start with an uncluttered, un-influenced clean sheet for the follow up film. Initially, these borrowed techniques worked fine to establish the protagonist's particularly narrow world view, but their continued usage past the first act felt like shoehorned fanboy lip service and quite naïve with it. Dolan, the much younger of the two, applies his influences with far greater maturity, unobtrusively commenting on both character and creator. By constantly harkening back to times that weren't his own, Francis – and by extension, Dolan – spends his youth being nostalgic for how he wants to remember it years down the line instead of living it. Whereas Ayoade was putting on Nouvelle vauge airs like a Halloween costume, this influence is in the very DNA of Dolan's film.
Like Francis, Marie is a bystander, observing her own life passing her by. Both are trying fruitlessly to silently will into being human connections that haven't happened yet and sculpt the associated non-existent memories with the same rigid control they exert on their impossibly stiff, cartoonish updos. Their choice of consciously ignoring reality is one the film makes also, its environment amplified to a kind of comic book new wave un-reality, establishing an open sexuality particular to this generation, then subsequently forgeting to explore or challenge the world of now - one that has changed so much because of ever-upgrading technology and constant communication, and so it follows that our evolving sexuality is a resultant attitude of the world in general becoming a much more open place. Yet Marie, Francis and Nicolas don't even go as far as ever using mobile phones, not once are they caught tweeting or texting and have seemingly never heard of Facebook. Perhaps this is why the sexuality, though frank and open, is devoid of voyeuristic titillation characteristic of the post-internet age. Without the baggage of adult sexuality, the sex scenes expose the characters for different means entirely, capturing them at their truest and most emotionally naked. Shot through in one primary colour, the red-blue-green bodies signify unwritten people at this time in their lives. It's here where you learn characters' secrets in a way you couldn't gain access to publicly, unable to move beyond the barrier of the projected persona. With so much emphasis on clothes, after a certain point it's impossible not to read them as a component of the construct, a type of armour. With these defenses always raised, such moments of intimacy and privacy are fascinating. Sex or lack of sex is a kind of communication for these characters: a comedic jerk-off scene allows Francis to say what to Nicolas what he wouldn't dare do otherwise, revealing much about who he really is vs the hipster poseur put on. And what is it that someone for whom flesh is an ideal (who is worshipful towards those they find beautiful without really knowing why) really wanting to say?Dolan, himself, too young to know the answer to the question he poses, may have created this film for the purposes of preservation, so that he might in his more advanced years look back on this time of his life with greater insight. To the detractors unconvinced of his prodigal gifts, if he unsurprisingly hasn't yet found his own voice two films into his career, then he certainly yells loud enough to be heard over the din of the swelling ranks of wannabe auteurs, providing us an interesting insight into the fluidity of sexuality, in an age where so many of us are stifled to silence by all this openness.
Video interview: MONIA CHOKRI
This exclusive interview was conducted for DVD Outsider by Timothy E. RAW at the Athenaeum Hotel in London on 23rd May 2011, shortly before the UK opening of Heartbeats, courtesy of Network Releasing. Our sincere thanks to Gillie Fairbrother from Network for arranging this interview, and to Monia Chokri for her time and generosity.