THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPEDNR
The theme of James Toback's 1975 cult favorite Fingers, upon which Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped is based, is ageless, universal, provocative, mysterious. So it is as ripe for this early-21st-century retelling as it will be for generations of storytellers to come.
A kind of Jekyll and Hyde tale ratcheted down to the real world, the film serves up a theme of conflict, as the best and worst of man vie in the same body and confront its extreme polarity and disruptive tug. Happily, Audiard, whose late father Michel was a director and one of France's most prolific screenwriters, does honor to both his source and subject. Appropriately, he also honors his father, as The Beat, like its forebear, also peeks into the complex father-son relationship.
While Toback's work has hit that suspect 30-year milestone, Audiard delivers a film that vibrates with the here and now, with a yin and yang that often pulls at the heart, soul and conscience of mostly male mortals.
Thomas (Romain Duris of L'Auberge Espagnole) works the low end of Paris real estate in a job requiring him and partner Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai) to bully delinquent, mostly immigrant tenants. Thomas' parentage helps explain his unfortunate career choice. His father Robert (Niels Arestrup) makes bad choices when it comes to women and tenants and has trained his son to collect rent no matter what it takes.
Thomas' late mother, a classical pianist, has provided the counter-genes that lie dormant until Thomas bumps into Sami (Gilles Cohen), who had managed the mother. After Sami encourages Thomas to audition for him, Thomas returns to the piano with a vengeance previously reserved for wayward tenants. So serious is Thomas, he engages Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a newly arrived Vietnamese immigrant who can't speak French, as his coach.
Thomas' life becomes a medley of dissonant parts as he chases after one of his father's tenants, runs smack into the wealthy Russian who is at the heart of the problem, and practices Bach, Haydn and Chopin assiduously. All the while he becomes a perfect student to his coach and a less than perfect lover to Fabrice's neglected wife. As if being punished for their imperfect lives, Thomas tragically loses his father, murdered by the kinds of bums who co-exist in their nasty corner of real estate.
Penultimately, in the middle of the night, before Thomas' all-important audition for Sami, he is awakened by Fabrice, who pulls him into yet another violent bout of tenant harassment. Not surprisingly, Thomas isn't exactly fit as a fiddle, or a piano in this case, for his morning audition. While much of The Beat is skillfully updated, it is Audiard's new coda that provides the virtuosic final movement that assures the film's originality and appeal.
Performances are top-notch, especially those of Duris and Arestrup, and the pounding rock soundtrack of contemporary French sounds, counterpointed by the classical pieces the hero plays and loves, help drive the story. The Beat is also a visual tour de force, as dramatic low angles and nervous editing heighten the immediacy-and pregnant dangers-inherent in the story.
But not all of The Beat is easy. Audiard's take on the low end of real estate is accurate but foreign, most certainly to Americans. At least in Paris, laws favor squatters so that property owners frequently take derelict matters into their own nasty hands. Also, the film's frenetic pace may be exhilarating to many but exhausting to others.
Overall, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a riff that will provide great pleasures to those willing to sample a molto vivace remake of Toback's cinematic ode to torment and obsession.