‘Beating Hearts’ Review: Gilles Lellouche’s Melodramatic Romance Epic Loses the Magic

Ah, to be young and in love. There is no feeling more intoxicating. It’s like an entire world of joy and emotion you’ve never experienced has opened before you just as it can narrow your focus. You believe that you are invincible and that nothing will ever take this away. This is the bread and butter of Gilles Lellouche’s “Beating Hearts” (titled “L’AMOUR OUF” in French) which chronicles the lives of two star-crossed lovers from their meeting in youth all the way through to adulthood.

It’s a film that comes out of the gate with plenty of verve, a great duo of young actors, and its heart on its sleeve (or stuck on the wall in the form of chewing gum). With energy coursing through every frame, fun musical choices to back it up, and a bittersweet tone woven throughout, the film’s first part feels like it could be the start of something special.

However, much like young love, such things cannot last forever. In addition to leaving behind the most compelling performers and their chemistry, “Beating Hearts” jettisons any prevailing interest with them. Instead, the film takes a nosedive just as the characters’ lives start to fall apart. It is never able to recover. No matter how much it cranks up the music or tries to recall the way with which this all began, it settles for being more of a standard, though painfully overstretched at nearly three hours, melodrama.

It never loses its sincerity, but when it nearly entirely strands one character out in narrative no man’s land, it still ends up sadly superficial.

Premiering Thursday evening in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, this all begins with a look far into this grim future. We open with the buildup to a shootout, primarily captured in shadows on the wall and the roar of gunfire, in which everyone presumably all end up dead. There was a chance to avert this, coming in the form of a phone call from a woman rushing to a phone booth only for it to go unanswered, but it seemed as though the man driving to the fight went against his own wants by just going ahead with it anyway.

We then flashback to when these two people, Jackie and Clotaire, first met. The former (Mallory Wanecque) comes from a more well-off family while the latter (Malik Frikah) is working class and a bit of a troublemaker.

From the moment they first meet, with Jackie stepping off the bus to Clotaire and company’s insults, it’s something close to love at first sight. We get completely swept up in the whirlwind of their young lives as they go on adventures with plenty of visual and musical flair. The colors are bright, the soundtrack loud, and their connection is all-consuming. It’s something you wish you could bottle up. Instead, the film dumps it all down the drain.

When Clotaire gets caught up in a criminal enterprise and is made to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit, he’ll be given a lengthy prison sentence that will forever alter the course of both of their lives. The emotional dropoff is by design, but it doesn’t land on anything nearly as engaging after this perilous fall.

With Jackie now played by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Clotaire by François Civil, everything feels even further out of balance in terms of what they’re given to work with. While the first part leaned toward Clotaire, the second basically makes him the protagonist at the expense of Jackie. We don’t ever really get any sense of her interiority and all of the scenes where we check up on her feel obligatory rather than thoughtful. Characters constantly question her emotional state, but we never feel what is going on in her mind when what is now essentially the Clotaire show takes up so much oxygen.

The distance between the two, meant to create a sense of longing over many years, just leaves a chasm of emotional investment. That it tries to pull a fast one by changing where this ends up is interesting in theory, but it provides the needed kick in the pants the film was crying out for far too late to truly save it.

While the juxtaposition between the scenes of young love and the cold realities of growing up is meant to be jarring, “Beating Hearts” increasingly lacks exactly that: An emotional core. There is never enough blood pumping through a second half that barely raises the pulse. While there is something to be said for a film at the festival that embraces being a cheesy melodrama, there still must be a propulsive force behind it for you to go along for the ride. Lellouche lacks that, coasting to an ending that makes you wish you could go back to where it all began.

Setting out to capture the harsh truths of adulthood, ‘Beating Hearts’ leaves behind what made it great. No matter how desperately it tries to go back or fill the void, it all feels frustratingly locked away.

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