Canucks Run Amok: ‘Good Neighbours’ And ‘Heartbeats’

(Films discussed in this post: Heartbeats, Good Neighbours, and Cold Weather.)

French New Wave. Italian Neo-Realism. British Kitchen Sink. Hollywood. Bollywood. Japanese horror. Hong Kong action-thrillers.

Nearly every region of the world has a type of cinema its “Known For.” Some have several.

But not Canada!

Unless you count Score: A Hockey Musical. Because a hockey musical could only be made in Canada.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of talented Candians working in the film industry. (David Cronenberg!) Or that Canadian movies aren’t good. (The Sweet Hereafter!)

I’m just saying Canada isn’t really, you know. Known for its cinematic endeavors.

But lately, I feel like Canadians may having their day. No, not Canada Day. I mean getting their due. Respect. Admiration. Love? Maybe ’cause of Justin Bieber.

Anyway, this year I’ve had a chance to catch a whopping two Canadian films, which is two more than I see most other years. They are Heartbeats, written and directed by Xavier Dolan, and Good Neighbours (yes, I’m using the Canadian spelling), written and directed by Jacob Tierney. For convenience’s sake, I will be lumping the indie kinda-darling Cold Weather in with these films, because I originally thought it was set and filmed in Canada. Turns out it is set and filmed in Portland, Oregon.

Close enough.

Cold Weather is directed by Aaron Katz and has been dubbed the first ever “mumblecore thriller.” And if you know anything about mumblecore (I don’t blame you if you don’t), you know there can be no such thing as a mumblecore thriller. Being on the edge of your seat just isn’t hip.

So true to form, Cold Weather isn’t all that thrilling. It briefly builds moments of suspense and then seemingly gets bored or distracted, or thinks it is time for a cutesy aside. The protagonist’s ex-girlfriend goes missing, which is engrossing, but then she’s quickly found again. And yeah, she owes some people some money, so there’s a little bit of a threat there. But mostly it plays out as all this really would play out. AKA, not that exciting. Some of the more interesting supporting characters (and plot threads) disappear in favor of stuff that’s not so tantalizing.

I don’t mean to deride the film too much, because it’s just not that ambitious. It’s more concerned with characters and atmosphere then it is with the actual story, which is pretty by-the-numbers. There’s some meta Arthur Conan Doyle references to give a little wink to the mystery elements, and the detective work here is only about as convincing as a Great Dane solving crimes on Scooby Doo. (Which is to say, very convincing!) The performances are pretty top-notch, and it’s shot and edited with skill and precision that defies the supposed mumblecoreness of it all.

But did it really work for me? No. I found certain moments interesting, but the meandering got me a little fed up with it, and I’m not sure why it ended where it did. It kinda leaves you hanging.

What Cold Weather does do effectively is capture a chilly wintery atmosphere, also displayed in Good Neighbours.

If Cold Weather is a little off the beaten path, then Good Neighbours wandered off the path miles ago and is now hopelessly lost in the woods. It’s a weird movie, which I appreciated. And in my estimation, it does a better job of capturing a weird Hitchcockian vibe with a lot of black humor. See, there’s a serial killer on the loose in Montreal. Three neighbors, played by Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, and Felicity‘s Scott Speedman, discuss the killings with great interest. Too much interest? Maybe. In a twist on Rear Window (you’ll see what I mean), Scott Speedman is confined to a wheelchair, and we get the sense he might have a crush on Emily Hampshire. Who is also the object of Jay Baruchel’s affections. There are a number of quirky indie-romcom moments, but also, let’s not forget: murder. Cats play a key role in what happens here, and you’ll probably feel sorrier for them than any of these people.

Like Cold Weather, Good Neighbours strikes an odd tone between suspense and comedy, but Good Neighbours pushes it in a more surprising direction. Tierney gives away the killer’s identity pretty early (at least if you’re paying attention), but I think he means to. This isn’t a whodunit so much as a, uh… whosgunnagetawaywithit? In the end, it becomes a game of two cats, one mouse (these being figurative cats; not be confused with the aforementioned actual cats). Is it great? No. But it’s perfectly watchable, for a Canadian movie.

And that brings me to the best of the bunch, by far: Heartbeats, for which my heart is all a-flutter.

I watched Heartbeats expecting a sentimental love story. But it’s not that at all. Even though the entire film purports to be about “love,” it is anything but your typical love story.

In fact, Heartbeats is a superficial movie, and I mean that in the best way. It is intended to be somewhat shallow — empty, to an extent. The characters are not shallow, exactly; but they act that way. They become infatuated, then obsessed, with the same individual — based on nothing. He’s attractive, sure. He’s somewhat captivating, mostly aloof. Essentially, he’s a blank slate that our “heroes” Marie and Francis project all their hearts’ desires onto.

“Who is that self-satisfied Adonis?” Marie asks when she first lays eyes on Nicolas. Both she and Francis smugly pretend to be completely disinterested. They’re condescending. How true is this? Marie and Francis expect that Nicolas would never be interested in them, so they beat him to the punch, taking him down a peg before he can reject them.

But soon they’re hanging out with him. Marie believes he’s straight; Francis hopes he’s gay. Nicolas is that sort of ambiguous charmer who can make just about anyone fall in love with him, effortlessly — like The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), except more clueless. He gives neither of them the validation they crave, nor does he rebuff them. Everything he does is open to their interpretation, and soon their infatuation grows into full-on obsession. Can Nicolas be blamed at all? Is he in love with being loved? Or is it just Francis and Marie driving themselves crazy?

Neither Francis nor Marie is in love with Nicolas; he is a cipher. We don’t know more than they do about what he’s thinking, and he is intentionally a thinly-sketched character. The point is that there is absolutely no reason for Marie and Francis to fall head over heels for him. There is nothing to make him so appealing; in fact, it is this very blankness that allows them to drive themselves over the edge for him. If Nicolas had more personality, they might realize he’s not so amazing after all. But this is a “love story” that is completely one-sided, as many romances are. It is not about the relationship between Francis and Nicolas, or Nicolas and Marie; it is not even really about the teetering friendship between Francis and Marie so much. It’s about their relationships with a totally fictional human being who they imagine is inhabiting Nicolas’ body. It’s about their relationships with a crazy, misbegotten part of their own brain, and we recognize in them the wacky, inexplicable things we’ve all done in the name of “love” — only to realize much later (and too late) that this is more a form of dementia than it is a true romance.

Heartbeats is broken up by interviews with other characters talking about their own romantic obsessions and features several slow-mo sequences in which our protagonists walk around all glamorously to lush French music. It’s a reminder that our ideas of “love” are susceptible to what song is playing, how things look, all kinds of superficial aspects we let interfere with our emotions.

Perhaps most impressive of all, Xavier Dolan (pictured above), who plays Francis, also wrote and directed the movie! (Bringing this review almost-full-circle, he also pops up in Good Neighbors, briefly.) It’s quite an accomplishment, since he is equally skilled in all three arenas. A triple threat. What’s more, Dolan is only 22 years old and happens to be (as you can see) pretty attractive, both of which make me hate him a little in light of his accomplishments.

But only slightly.

Like I said, Heartbeats is, in a way, a superficial film because it is about a superficial subject; it won’t delve deep into these characters because they have no interest in fully-realized emotions. They’d rather have the pop song, the glossy montage, the dream. It’s a movie about petty pretty people looking and acting pretty and petty — at least until they come to their senses. It’s simple, really. But if you don’t recognize yourself in it, then you’re not looking hard enough.

Oh, and it’s in French(-Canadian)!

Have you been sufficiently seduced?

Heartbeats: Love.

Good Neighbours: Worth a gander.

Cold Weather: Brr. Maybe.

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