Saturday, November 05, 2005

Review - The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté)

For years Hollywood producers have been greedily snapping up the rights to foreign films in order to remake them as their own, but The Beat That My Heart Skipped marks one of the very few occasions when a film moves in the opposite direction. The subject under revision here is James Toback’s 1978 debut film Fingers; an edgy, volatile picture which starred Harvey Keitel as a low-level enforcer who is torn between the violent acts his father asks him to perform and the opportunity to use the musical gifts he inherited from his mother in order to make it as a concert pianist.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped sticks pretty closely to this original template, but still manages to be a very different proposition to Fingers. Toback’s film is not a great picture by any means. It is an overwrought and wildly schizophrenic affair which bundles its way through a wayward and occasionally incoherent narrative. The sheer strangeness of the film keeps it fairly compelling, and the young Harvey Keitel provides a typically fiery and intense central performance, but perhaps the fact that the film has been so little-seen since its release has caused it to be claimed as some sort of lost classic when it is nothing of the sort.

Director Jacques Audiard takes a more clear-eyed and controlled approach to the story, smoothing out the rough edges of Fingers and losing much of the craziness inherent in Toback’s original. Instead Audiard tells the story in a more understated and elliptical style, creating an engrossing character study which is tender, passionate and smart.

Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a young man who works for his shady property-owning father (the excellent Niels Arestrup), but his duties are generally confined to scaring tenants out of various buildings his father wants to buy at a knockdown price and collecting errant debts by any means necessary. Despite his wired and brooding demeanour Tom actually has a far more sensitive side underneath, and he wants more from life than his father appears set to offer him. Then a chance encounter opens up the possibility of a new future for Tom, as he bumps into the man who managed his late mother during her days as a concert pianist. Mr Fox (Sandy Whitelaw) asks Tom if he still plays and offers him the chance to audition for a place in his prestigious music academy, but Tom’s other commitments threaten to destroy his dreams.

If the best thing about Fingers was Harvey Keitel’s powerful performance, then the main ingredient for the success of The Beat That My Heart Skipped is an indelible turn by Romain Duris as Tom. Duris’ performance is far more tightly controlled than Keitel’s exuberant turn but is equally effective, and it makes Tom a hugely engaging and compelling anti-hero. Duris internalises all of Tom’s anguish and portrays him as a character so tightly-wound he could explode at any moment. The actor often drums the table with his fingers and jiggles his leg while seated as he tries to channel the abundance of anger and nervous energy which is coursing through his body. The opportunity to produce music provides a means of release for Tom; he violently jabs at the keys and lets out a primal howl of despair whenever he hits the wrong note.

Duris never hits a wrong note in this film, giving a display of rage and sensitivity which reminded this viewer not only of the passion the young Keitel brought to his roles but also of early De Niro, particularly his Johnny Boy from Scorsese’s Mean Streets. The fact that Duris’ incendiary display doesn’t look out of place when spoken of in the same breath as these extraordinary performances is testament to its quality.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is around 17 minutes longer than Fingers and by opening the story out and giving it room to breath Audiard and co-screenwriter Tonino Benacquista have developed a much more involving tale with fully-realised characters and a coherent, believable narrative. By cutting out many of the first film’s more ludicrous and unnecessary subplots Audiard can give more time to Tom’s growing involvement in music and his touching relationship with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham) a Chinese woman living in Paris who offers to help Tom prepare for his audition. Miao Lin doesn’t speak any French, and has only a few words of English, but as in his previous feature Read My Lips Audiard shows how a mutual respect and affection (if not, on this occasion, love) can overcome any language barrier.

Audiard keeps his hand-held camera tight on the action creating an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere and in conjunction with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine his restless eye occasionally settles on some beautiful images. He is fast becoming one of the most interesting filmmakers in French cinema and The Beat That My Hearts Skipped marks another significant development for him, providing a much more complete and satisfying film than Read My Lips.

Audiard takes the film off in a different direction for the finale. It’s a brave move, as Toback’s closing shot of Keitel’s haunted visage is arguably the film’s finest moment, but here the decision to end on a more ambiguous (even hopeful) note is a smart one. We leave Tom bloody but unbowed and in the process of reinventing his life. Despite so many of his dreams being shattered his future finally looks bright for the first time in his tumultuous life. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a film which gives us hope that a person can change his life, and as a study of a man torn between the two sides of his character - between art and brutality - it never skips a beat.