The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Jonathan Zaccaï, and Gilles Cohen star in a film written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, based on the screenplay by James Toback, and directed by Audiard.
Reviewed by Josef Woodard
In this fascinating and avidly filmic tale about a mobster’s son with a secret life as an aspiring concert pianist, French director Jacques Audiard succeeds in placing us inside the conflicted head of his young protagonist. Loosely based on the 1978 James Toback film Fingers, with Harvey Keitel in the lead role, Audiard’s own approach to the material — at once sensitive and violent — roughly mirrors the dualities and conflict within Thomas (Romain Duris). While using his hands for thuggery — a virtuosic way with baseball bats, knives, and fisticuffs — he increasingly dreams of escaping that criminal life and following in his pianist mother’s footsteps.
What makes this film so distinctive is the unusually subtle integration of form, content, and themes. Despite the film’s familiar scenes of gangster-brand violence and cycles of revenge between bad guys, classical music — a promise of redemption and deeper humanity — filters through the carnage, often in abruptly fragmented form. Once obsessed with reclaiming his former life as a pianist, Thomas himself often plays beautifully, but also clenches up with rage before getting through a piece. An archival film of Horowitz’s fingers sailing effortlessly across the keyboard becomes a source of inspiration and an impossible dream for him.
Thomas’s fingers, often seen in close-ups, are used to intimidate and squeeze money out of people, or to coax profound music from a piano. The internal struggle is made palpable in the film, illustrated by his frustrated attempts to build his piano technique and confidence, while studying with a recently emigrated Chinese teacher who speaks no French. Throughout the film are barriers of language and culture, and a sense of working through obstacles toward some new state of understanding or clarity, the basic turbine of the narrative.
Beyond the built-in psychological ammo of the basic story, Audiard has recast Toback’s tortured tale in terms at once more human and more cinematic than the original. A nice loose, engagingly naturalistic feel in the filmmaking contains echoes of Truffaut’s tough grace, but is also energized by the inherent tension of the story and the inner churnings of its central character. Underscoring the film is a narrative landscape constantly shifting between the sublime and the vicious, between Bach and brutality.