This piece on Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped was published in the July-August 2005 issue of Film Comment. It’s revived here upon the arrival of Audiard’s A Prophet, which is a triumph. – Robert Horton
A sublimely vulgar yellow sportcoat connects The Beat That My Heart Skipped to Fingers, James Toback’s 1977 debut picture. This French remake retains other aspects of the original, of course: the set-up of the story (a two-bit hoodlum’s classical piano training is re-awakened by the promise of an audition with his mother’s old manager), a terrifically violent climactic fight in a stairway, and the protagonist’s erotic interlude with a gangster’s mistress.
But there is much that has been changed by Jacques Audiard and his co-scenarist Tonino Benacquista – characters and subplots added, tone modified. It’s a better movie than Fingers, though a less astonishing one. The main character, called Tom here, now works the shady side of the real-estate street, and coolly uses rats and sledge hammers to roust squatters out of his dilapidated apartment buildings. In Fingers, we know Harvey Keitel is a pianist from the first moments of the picture, but Tom greets us as a punk, all nervous finger-drumming and strongarm tactics and electronica through his headphones. We only learn of his dormant talent when he runs into the music manager. (Romain Duris is spectacular as Tom – when the manager offhandedly suggests he come for an audition, watch Duris’ face as he registers disbelief, self-disgust, and a childlike surge of hope. Duris has the wolfish angles of a smack-withered English rock star, his cheeks sunken and his teeth crowding his mouth – there are shots of him walking down the street where he looks like the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft in the “Bittersweet Symphony” video.)
Audiard’s style, handheld and close to the characters, is keyed off Tom’s jazzed energy. But, in his biggest addition to the original story, Audiard introduces a figure of stillness, a Chinese pianist (Linh Dan Pham) who gives Tom lessons as he prepares for his audition. She doesn’t speak French, and she expresses her alarm at his playing by pursing her lips and microscopically shaking her head. The almost subliminal comedy of her deadpan presence pokes a hole in Tom’s self-regard, and provides a much needed breath of air that Toback’s film never had.
At times the radical shifts in tone suggest the galloping of Tom’s brain, like the way Audiard blurred the mise-en-scene of Read My Lips in deference to his partly-deaf heroine. The soundtrack, too, pulls against itself. Bach scrapes against electronica, a Euro-pop cover of “Loco-Motion” lands hard upon the tasty orchestral score by the increasingly essential Alexandre Desplat. As Tom sits in a nightclub and his business partner jabbers on about real estate, the offending voice fades away as Tom grins at his suddenly renewed affair with Bach, the wall of the club blooming behind him in an ecstatic orangey glow.
As for the yellow sportcoat, it is worn by Tom’s father (the dissipated Niels Arestrup). The jacket is not merely an homage to the first movie, but a measure of the father’s foolishness, an emblem of youth draped on a wheezy older man who actually believes he will marry the hot young underwear model he’s been screwing around with. Of course Tom finds his father’s engagement absurd, yet that penchant for folly is passed on, like much else, from pere to fils. Tom believes that the piano audition might result in his becoming – well, if not a concert pianist, then at least something different from what he has been. In its survey of the impossible business of human skin-shedding, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is more optimistic than Fingers, even if (in one of the film’s final close-ups) Tom still has blood soaked into the cuffs of his white dress shirt, violence and promise oozing into each other. Hope is a fool’s game, Audiard seems to say, but it’s the only game in town.