Adele Exarchopoulos and Francois Civil play teenage lovers reunited in adulthood in Gilles Lellouche’s Competition melodrama

Beating Hearts

Source: Cannes

‘Beating Hearts’

Dir: Gilles Lellouche. France. 2024. 166mins

The soundtrack is cranked as loud as the emotional maximalism in Beating Hearts, a grandiose love story whose characters ultimately cannot live up to the epic framework in which director Gilles Lellouche has placed them. The film incorporates indelible pop songs of the 1980s and ‘90s as it examines the star-crossed romance between teenagers from very different backgrounds — one a diligent student, the other a budding criminal — who are separated for a decade before reuniting in adulthood. Adele Exarchopoulos and Francois Civil may be top-billed, but this unapologetically sentimental drama actually works better in its first half when their adolescent counterparts take centre stage, seizing on the irrepressible excitement of first love.

Those enraptured by love’s eternal promise may nonetheless be swept away by the film’s unbridled melodrama

Actor/filmmaker Lellouche’s first solo directorial feature, Sink Or Swim, screened Out of Competition in Cannes in 2018, and now he graduates to Competition with this filmwhich is based on the 1997 Neville Thompson novel. Beating Hearts could be a promising date-night prospect, its crime-saga/romantic-drama operatics catering to audiences susceptible to its feverish swirl of sound and images. At 166 minutes, however, its length is commercially daunting.

Opening in northern France in the mid-1980s, the film introduces us to self-possessed teenager Jackie (Wanecque) and bad-boy petty crook Clotaire (Malik Frikah), who enjoys bullying his classmate but quickly realises she will not be intimidated. They fall in love, Jackie drawing out Clotaire’s softer side, but their blossoming relationship runs into problems once he is seduced by a crime boss, La Brosse (Benoit Poelvoorde)into joining his gang. When an armed robbery goes wrong and a security guard is accidentally killed by La Brosse’s son, Clotaire takes the rap and is sentenced to prison for a decade. 

Clotaire’s incarceration occurs almost exactly halfway through Beating Hearts, with the second half jumping forward to his release. Now played by Civil, Clotaire desperately seeks out Jackie (Exarchopoulos), who he insisted should not visit him in jail. But he is heartbroken to learn she is now married to business executive Jeffrey (Vincent Lacoste) and has moved on with her life.

While Beating Hearts may not be a traditional musical, the film taps into the genre’s tenets and formal strategies – especially in how it bathes the viewer in dynamic hits from the story’s two time periods. In the 1980s, The Cure, Prince and The Alan Parsons Project emphatically underline the couple’s burgeoning passion, while the post-prison section makes room for hip-hop and Everything But The Girl. There are a few appealingly loose dance sequences, which strike a balance between old-school Hollywood musicals and ‘80s music videos, and Jon Brion’s piano-and-strings score evokes a mood of pure romantic escapism.

Lellouche rarely keeps the camera still, the restless movement suggesting the frantic emotions of these lovebirds. And cinematographer Laurent Tangy, who previously worked with the director on Sink Or Swim, crafts striking compositions, often utilising spotlights, sunsets and other dramatic lighting to give Jackie and Clotaire’s courtship a swooning movie-ish grandeur. 

Wanecque and Frikah make for a sweet, guileless couple, the actors depicting young love as an ecstatic state of mind. Even as Clotaire moves from simple shoplifting to more serious crimes, Frikah plays him as a troubled young man with a good heart — a cliche, of course, but one that mostly works within a film that luxuriates in its heightened unreality and love-conquers-all optimism. And Wanecque is especially good at conveying Jackie’s independent spirit and also embodying the edginess that Exarchopoulos has long brought to her onscreen portrayals, giving us a sense of the adult Jackie before we ever meet her.

Unfortunately, once the couple is reunited in their 20s, the film’s buzzy high dissipates. No matter the grittiness of Exarchopoulos and Civil, meant to suggest how these teens were beaten down by life, their rapport isn’t nearly as sparkling as before. This is, partly, the point, as the adult Jackie and Clotaire warily try to reconnect, but Beating Hearts’ knowingly over-the-top ending requires an intense chemistry the two adult leads cannot fully muster. 

Those enraptured by love’s eternal promise may nonetheless be swept away by the film’s unbridled melodrama. But as the story starts to lose its lustre, eventually bogged down in Clotaire’s criminal enterprises and Jackie’s convoluted complications regarding her husband, the moony atmosphere and rocking tunes fail to provide adequate compensation. The best musicals feel lighter than air: Beating Hearts strains to create the illusion of effortlessness. 

Production companies: Chi-Fou-Mi Productions, Tresor Films, StudioCanal, France 2 Cinema, Cool Industrie, Artemis Productions, VOO and BeTv, Proximus

International sales: StudioCanal, 

Producers: Alain Attal, Hugo Selignac

Screenplay: Gilles Lellouche, Audrey Diwan and Ahmed Hamidi, based on the novel by Neville Thompson 

Cinematography: Laurent Tangy

Production design: Jean-Philippe Moreaux

Editing: Simon Jacquet

Music: Jon Brion

Main cast: Adele Exarchopoulos, Francois Civil, Mallory Wanecque, Malik Frikah, Alain Chabat, Benoit Poelvoorde, Vincent Lacoste, Jean-Pascal Zadi, Elodie Bouchez, Karim Leklou, Raphael Quenard, Anthony Bajon