Oct. 27, 2008

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
Grade: 88/100

Director: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Jonathan Zaccai

What it's about. A French language remake of the 1978 Hollywood film Fingers. Brooding and violent young thug Thomas (Romain Duris) is a valued member of an organized crime business, where he works with fellow brutes Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai) and Sami (Gilles Cohen).

Thomas has an unlikely combination of parents. His mother was a gifted concert pianist, who apparently had a mental breakdown and committed suicide some years ago. His father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), is a small-time financier who makes loans to criminal enterprises. He then expects Thomas to collect, regardless of the risk to them both.

Thomas' life is already complex, but it is about to become more so. Robert has a new girlfriend (Emmanuelle Divos) who may be using him. Fabrice is cheating on his wife, Aline (Aure Atika), and involves Thomas as cover. Once Aline learns the truth about Fabrice's encounters, Thomas begins an affair with her to keep her from making trouble.

But the biggest complication for Thomas is his newfound dream of becoming a concert pianist. A chance meeting with her mother's manager, Mr. Fox (Sandy Whitelaw), encourages him to resume his long abandoned training. He hires Maio (Linh Dan Pham) as a coach, and their sessions interfere with his criminal career.

How others will see it. The Beat My Heart Skipped is an excellent movie, but it is not for everyone. It is subtitled, has a pretentious title, and has several extremely violent scenes. Duris' twitchy performance and his propensity for assault will alienate some viewers.

However, the quality of the film is unassailable. It won eight Cesar Awards (essentially the French version of the Oscars) and was nominated for two others. It won the British Academy Award for "Best Film not in the English language." It was ignored by the Oscars and Golden Globes, probably because its anti-social protagonist was too much for their judges to stomach.

How I felt about it. This is the best previously unwatched film that I have seen in more than two years. The story and its various subplots are engrossing, and the lead character, Thomas, is fascinating. Romain Duris' remarkably intense performance is also a major plus.

The most interesting aspect of the film is Thomas' motivation to become a concert pianist. In the first place, it is a longshot. And if he succeeds, he will make far less money than he does as a criminal businessman. His unstable temperament is unsuitable for the world of classical music. His criminal pals, Fabrice and Sami, disapprove of his new ambitions.

So, why is Thomas training? Is it to impress Mr. Fox? Does he wish to redeem his mother's life? Perhaps the motivation is simpler than that. Classical piano music was engrained in his psyche at an early age, and he can't shake his emotional roots. His intensity matches the passion he feels for the piano. Thomas might also be searching for an escape (even an out) from his criminal career, which robs him of his humanity.