During the seventh century, as Egyptian papyrus was becoming more expensive and hard to acquire, an economical practice became quite popular. Palimpsests were existing scrolls which were then washed to erase what was already written in order to reuse. This is a graphic visualization of intertextuality, the process that describes the relationship between texts that share a stylistic, aesthetic, or moral kinship. But what happens when this occurs between two works of different media, such as literature and film, or even between a writer and a filmmaker?
Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s second film, Heartbeats, revolves around the characters of Frances and Marie attending the birthday party of their friend Nicolas, to whom both are attracted. As the two watch him dance with Désirée, images of French filmmaker, critic, painter, and occultist writer Jean Cocteau, appear alongside the scene.
The illustrations are from Cocteau’s The White Book (1928), a piece that, under the guise of anonymity, collects the torments of the author’s sentimental and sexual entanglements. This short narrative was written in 1927, during a Christmas vacation the French writer took in Chablis with Jean Desbordes. On the cinematic plain, these interjections to the film’s plot represent the homoerotic fantasies of the character of Francis, played by Dolan himself.
The scene’s rhythm is set by the dazzling flashes of strobe lights. Suddenly, the reality of the moment resembles a music video seen from the perspective of the main character and, subsequently, the filmmaker’s.
It’s at this moment when the character finds an escape route to his internal torture: if he cannot get what he desires the most, he’ll fantasize with having it. This temporary solution is like covering up a hole with a flower. His way of representing freedom and happiness is not random; it captures homoerotic sexuality as an artist full of self-deceit and fantasy.
Cocteau’s influence is quite obvious: “The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.”
For Cocteau beauty is a universal idea, or a universe itself. Dolan’s films attempt to work within the contemporary frameworks of beauty. They're not an abstract on visual beauty, placing fashionable stylistic choices above film. Far from devaluating the script to favor aesthetics, his work uses beauty as a narrative element.
An example can be found in Dolan’s third feature, Laurence Anyways:
-Do looks matter to you?
-Does air matter to your lungs?
Throughout Dolan’s filmography, we can observe how Cocteau’s words and influence appear seamlessly as a whisper through the director’s soul. This inspiration allows us as viewers to peer through the tension that occurs when creating something that is as much autobiographical as it is a fiction of the reality. It poses a question about how Dolan interiorizes moments in his life to create a visual retelling that is not a memoir, but a perception of a turn of events.
Dolan’s film Heartbeats is not only sublime in the visual sense; it also features a killer soundtrack that takes you on an emotional journey. It’s actually part of the most romantic soundtracks out there. As for other films that feature the interior struggle of love and acceptance amidst a complicated, climate, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a perfect companion to a movie night including Xavier Dolan’s filmography.
Translated by María Suárez