Thomas Seyr, the central figure in director Jacques Audiard’s kinetically charged new film The Beat That My Heart Skipped, is a young Frenchman torn between a life of crime and a career as a concert pianist. It’s hardly your usual dilemma — and hardly the usual French film, come to think of it. A rare Gallic remake of an American movie, it’s based on director James Toback’s 1978 cult film Fingers. The original can’t hold a candle to this visceral new version.
Romain Duris burns up the screen as 28-year-old Thomas, a cocky go-getter with a fondness for the shady side of the real-estate business. Along with his two unscrupulous partners, he specializes in evicting tenants and squatters from rental units they don’t want to leave, then buying up the properties for himself. Their tactics include savage beatings, smashing up apartments, and flooding the buildings with rats. Lately, Thomas has also been collecting delinquent debts for his father Robert (Niels Arestrup), an aging loan shark who has gotten too old to do his own dirty work.
Thomas and his father have a conflicted relationship — a strong love mixed with disdain. Robert treats his offspring like a subordinate, but also relies on him, not only to act as his muscle man, but also for companionship. Thomas’ development clearly has been influenced by his father, but there’s another side to him too — one that reflects the impact of his late mother, a concert pianist who encouraged her son’s artistic impulses. A once-promising pianist himself, Thomas gave up music a long time ago. But a chance encounter with his mother’s former manager rekindles his passion, and when the man offers a chance to audition, Thomas convinces himself that it isn’t too late for a concert career.
He hires a piano coach, a young Vietnamese woman who speaks no French. As quiet as her student is volatile, Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham) is frightened by Thomas’ outbursts, but needs the money too badly to discontinue the tutoring. Increasingly, Miao-Lin’s apartment becomes a kind of refuge for Thomas, a sanctuary of calm and security.
His renewed interest in music puts him at odds with his real-estate partners, especially when he begins neglecting his duties. More traumatic for him, however, is the realization that in abandoning the cutthroat world of real estate, he is turning his back on his father. The costs will prove to be not only professional but also personal. Thomas clearly is at an emotional crossroads, and so tightly wound that he seems constantly on the verge of exploding.
Duris is sensational, giving a charismatic, incendiary performance that recalls Pierre Clementi, the cruel but almost pitiable thug in Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour. (Duris also resembles him physically.) Equally impressive is the aggressive but intimate work of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine — hand-held, with lots of close-ups, usually from the protagonist’s point of view — which mirrors Thomas’ own internal turmoil.
The sense of constant movement and emotional agitation would suggest a kind of fast-paced editing style, with a preponderance of short, choppy shots. But the opposite is true. The action actually plays out in lengthy master shots, albeit with a free-flowing camera that helps to create a somewhat similar psychological impression.
The script was co-written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, who also collaborated on Audiard’s 2001 film Read My Lips, perhaps best described as a love story wrapped around a thriller. The Beat That My Heart Skipped, like its predecessor, contains more than a few elements inherent in thrillers.
The father-son conflict at the emotional heart of the film has obvious Freudian implications — in choosing his mother’s path, Thomas is, in effect, rejecting/killing his father — but to their credit, Audiard and Benacquista do not belabor this point. It’s there for the viewer to see if he so chooses. The film is not a psychological tome, but, rather, a character study. And an unusually exciting, engrossing one at that.