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The Beat My Heart Skipped
HHH 1/2 Directed by Jacques Audiard. Written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista. Hebrew title: Libi Ha-Hasir Paima. 108 minutes. In French, with Hebrew titles. With Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Jonathan Zaccai, Gilles Cohen, Linh Dan Pham, Aure Atika, Emmanuelle Devos, Anton Yakovlev, Sandy Whitelaw, Melanie Laurent.
A remake of Fingers, the 1978 James Toback movie starring Harvey Keitel, Jacques Audiard's The Beat My Heart Skipped is a gripping if somewhat familiar story of a small-time gangster who longs for a better life. Romain Duris gives an outstanding performance as Thomas, who works as an enforcer for his selfish, dissipated gangster father, but longs to be a concert pianist, as his late mother was. This violent film, which swept the Cesar awards (the French Oscars) this year, provides a nuanced portrait of a conflicted young man who can never completely break away from the dark world in which he has grown up.
Unlike many other gangster films, which intend to condemn the criminal lifestyle but actually glorify it, this one shows the seediness and desperation of Thomas' daily routine. His father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), a fat, aging hulk who spends his days at cafes with his latest much younger girlfriend, sends Thomas and a few partners out to do his dirty work, much of which consists of harassing immigrants who live in buildings that developers want to buy. They dump sacks of rats in the buildings, vandalize as much as they can, and beat and threaten the immigrants. But as much as he wants to put all this behind, he can't seem to break away from his father, who dominates him and has taught him to enjoy violence and power.
He amuses himself with various women, including the wife of one of his associates (Aure Atika, whom Israeli audiences may recognize as the actress who played Simone in Turn Left at the End of the World) but nothing diverts him for long. Then he learns that his mother's mentor, Mr. Fox (Sandy Whitelaw), a concert promoter, is holding auditions. Although he grew up playing piano, he hasn't practiced much lately and he blows the audition. But Mr. Fox, who remembers his mother with great affection, urges him to get some coaching and try again.
The coach he finds is Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), a young Vietnamese pianist who gives him lessons in her modest high-rise apartment. These scenes, in which instead of dominating a woman, he lets her guide him, are flooded with light, in sharp contrast to the dark, neo-Noir atmosphere of the rest of the film. Although they could easily have been marred by clich s, the piano lesson sequences are the freshest in the movie. Thomas, who is used to being in charge when he is leading a raid on a slum or attacking someone who owes money to his father, is on uncertain ground with Miao Lin. The difference in tone between the typical Hollywood scenario and the far more nuanced plot here is clear as Thomas improves, but very slowly. His respect for his teacher grows as she doesn't give him the praise he craves but hasn't earned. Their relationship is complicated, because Miao Lin knows a little about Thomas' background and is wary of him when he is not seated at the piano.
Although I haven't seen Fingers, as I watched Beat, I was reminded of another French film about a classical pianist from a gangster family, Francois Truffaut's second feature, Shoot the Piano Player. When I interviewed the Beat director Audiard recently, he denied that he had consciously patterned Beat on Shoot in any way, but the similarities linger in the basic plot and the mood of both films. Although Audiard, a screenwriter turned director, seemed uncomfortable with the comparison, there is no greater compliment I can give him than to say that, in many ways, Beat marks him as one of the only French directors worthy of being called a successor to Truffaut.
Beat manages to create interest in and empathy for an arrogant and often unlikable protagonist, no small feat. In spite of the violent scenes that sometimes feel like overkill, Beat and its characters will stay with you long after you've left the theater.