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.


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