When I first saw Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped, at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005, it afforded one of those experiences one attends film festivals hoping to experience but too rarely do. Sandwiched between two friends, I could sense the silent intimacy growing between us as we realised we were watching something special, being projected for the first time, the frisson within the audience around us crackling ever more perceptibly by the second.
The film’s young protagonist was one of the most compelling screen characters I’d come across for some time, someone whose identity crisis, though admittedly melodramatic, might strike a chord (pun intended) for many who feel they’ve taken the wrong course in their lives.
Tom (Romain Duris) is a 28-year-old Parisian hustler, working in the seedy underbelly of the real estate trade, a man not averse to bribing officials, unleashing a plague of rats into a building whose families he wants to vacate and who, as a non-paying sideline, acts as violent debt collector for his father Robert (Niels Arestrup), who is also in the business. Tom has a flash flat and a terrible temper, parading about in a chic leather jacket and with a smile whose teeth seem serrated, like a shark’s.
Then a chance encounter with a man from his childhood rekindles something in him: the passion, shared with his late mother, for the piano. And just as his mother was a concert pianist, Tom suddenly decides that he, too, would like to return to the keyboard and hone his talent in that direction. The exact reason for Tom’s decision is never articulated; it’s unnecessary. The implication is that on losing his mother and his natural adherence to her vocation, he has allowed himself to slip into the gutter of his father’s occupation. And now he wants out.
The consequences of this epiphany are two quite different confrontations. The first is between Tom and Miao-Lin (Linh-Dam Pham), the Vietnamese piano teacher he has engaged to bring him up to speed for an audition. The second involves his struggle to pull away from his nefarious milieu: not just from his colleagues and so-called friends, who complain that “you’re coming to meetings all mellow” and don’t want to lose what they perceive to be his talents, but from his father, whose dealings are becoming increasingly dangerous.
A remake of James Toback’s Fingers, made in 1978 with Harvey Keitel in the lead, this is a tough, stylish, unusual film, a cracking crime thriller lent substance by its anti-hero’s painful straddling of two quite different worlds. We witness this conflict via some fabulous details: visually, as when Tom is sitting in a bar, fingering his piano movements on the table while on the top of his hand we see the scald mark he received while beating the life out of one of his dad’s debtors; aurally, as we listen to Tom’s predicament through his music, alternating between the Bach toccato he rehearses on the piano, and the dance music he listens to on his ever-present headphones. It’s no surprise that Audiard’s previous film was the equally fabulous thriller Read My Lips, for whose deaf heroine sound, or in her case the absence of sound, was equally important.
Audiard brilliantly evokes the casually, sometimes gleefully criminal world lingering just below the surface of everyday life, and in so doing reminds us of the film’s antecedents: Keitel made Fingers shortly after he starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and both films flex their muscles under this one’s shirt, not least via Duris’ exciting and compelling performance. Though Duris is perhaps more comparable to the younger De Niro than Keitel, with the same self-contained strut, and a face that alternates between brooding intensity and that aforementioned killer smile.
Tom’s relationships are also incredibly well expressed by both the actor and his director: the camaraderie wearing thin with his cohorts, the suspicion that turns into trust and then love with Miao-Lin, and in particular the complex rapport with his father – whose sandy hair and yellow suits lend him a perpetually rancid aura, and who Tom loves but instinctively knows he needs out of his life.
All these relationships, plus a more amorous one with a friend’s wife, inform in some way Tom’s attempt not so much to recreate, as rediscover himself. And if we ever doubt that this is more than affectation, we only have to look at the unadulterated joy on Duris’ face when he’s playing, or even imagining music. As rough and tough as its milieu might be, this film is a bit like that: an unadulterated joy.