Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

Much has been made of the man-bites-dog fact that The Beat that My Heart Skipped is a French remake of an American movie. That’s unusual, all right – in fact, James Toback, the director of the 1978 original, Fingers, thought it was the only such remake until Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times told him he knew of one other. But what’s most interesting about this movie is not that it was done at all but that it was done so well.

In an age of mindless retreads, director Jacques Audiard takes an interesting idea that was poorly developed in the original and makes it pop. The characters and situations are utterly believable and the story is poignant, thanks to impeccable acting, intimate close-ups shot with a handheld camera, and smart, colloquial dialogue by Tonino Benacquista, who also wrote Audiard’s Read My Lips.

When the movie opens, 28-year-old Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) is caught up in a brutalizing routine his father has led him into. He works in a sleazy corner of the Paris real estate market that involves dirty tricks like infesting buildings with rats, cutting off water, or even beating people to clear them out of the buildings Thomas and his partners are trying to sell. As if that weren’t bad enough, his father periodically calls him into duty as an attack dog, sending him to rough up people who are welshing on their debts. And at night, he hangs out with his partners in bars, doing coke, picking up girls, and getting into fights.

Surrounded by people who take advantage of him – and everyone else – Thomas has learned to act tough. But he’s more sensitive than his callous father and partners, and he wants more from life than the deadening rut he has fallen into. He finds it when he comes across the manager who represented his concert pianist mother when she was alive. Thomas accepts the manager’s offer to polish up his rusty piano skills, hiring Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a pianist who recently emigrated from Vietnam, to help him learn a challenging piece he can play at an audition for the manager. Thomas throws himself into his practicing, hoping to leave behind his job and become a professional musician.

The piano on the soundtrack is played by Duris’s sister, who is a professional musician (that’s her you hear rehearsing when Thomas listens to one of his mother’s tapes). She also coached him on how to play, which may explain why not just the actor’s fingering but his expressions seem so authentic. Laboring to master his piece, Thomas runs the gamut from frowning concentration to frustration to trance-like flow.

In the uneven original, the main character, who was played by Harvey Keitel, was a dangerous thug who didn’t seem to have any real doubts about his way of life, despite a few too many Actors Studio-ish scenes of him practicing his fingering on restaurant tables. In this version he’s far more sympathetic, treating people with consideration and struggling to balance his love for and obligation to his abusive father with his affinity for his dead mother and her instrument. Toggling between violence and vulnerability, Duris makes us feel Thomas’s ease and self-assurance in the brutal world he’s accustomed to, his initial awkwardness and diffidence in the world of classical music, and the effort required to pass from one to the other.

The relationship between Thomas and Miao-Lin is also touching. Communicating with just a few words (she doesn’t speak French and he doesn’t speak Vietnamese), they grow steadily closer as she helps him approach her implacably high standards, watching over him with quiet intensity.

Just when you might start to misinterpret Miao-Lin’s reserve as weakness, Thomas shouts at her in frustration and she shouts back and wins, earning his apology. Watching her stiffen up to rebuke his abuse, I found myself imagining the far worse trials she probably had to endure to get from Vietnam to Paris.

My first thought was that the roadblocks Miao-Lin faced would probably make Thomas’ look like tinker toys. My second thought was what a pleasure it was to be watching a movie whose characters were so real that you wondered what they did before the story began.

Written for TimeOFF

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