3½ stars (out of four)
"The Beat That My Heart Skipped," from director-writer Jacques Audiard, is a movie that should challenge the old canard that French art cinema is boring, fluffy and pretentious.
Based on the 1978 American film noir "Fingers"the numbingly fierce and naked directorial debut by 33-year-old James Toback that starred Harvey Keitel as a Mafia boss's son who wants to be a classical pianistthis is a French film that takes the hard-boiled poetics of American noir and squeezes them into an explosive, compacted knot of anguish and violence.
It's a thriller that comes at you with gut-clutching ferocity, spewing blood and sex, shaking you up and scrambling your responses. The movie's images pummel at you, as Audiard's and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine's restless handheld camera prowls Paris streets, peeks into boudoirs or jams up against the movie's hardcase bullies and creeps as they insult, bash or kill each other.
With its steady eruptions or threats of brutality, it's a clenched fist of a movie. And, at the center of all this raw furor is the boyishly magnetic young French actor Romain Duris ("L'Auberge Espagnole," "Exiles"). Duris plays Tom Seyr, a crooked real estate ruffian who yearns for unlikely validation as a classical pianist: the same conflict that bedeviled Keitel in "Fingers." Duris, who can look both thuggish or delicately handsome, is perfect for the part. The son of a star pianist (whom we never see) and of brutal, woman-chasing slumlord Robert (Niels Arestrup), Tom shows bits of both parents as he slides from one world to the otherplunging into street violence or nervously studying for a concert audition set up by his mother's elegant old manager.
In "Fingers," Keitel's Jimmy Angelelli, a thug in black leather and white silk swaggered though the streets while working as his Cosa Nostra dad's (Michael V. Gazzo) brutal loan collector and then went home to furiously practice a Bach toccata. In "Heart," Tom works as an enforcer for crooked real estate speculators, setting rats loose in abandoned buildings and beating up squatters and then, like Jimmy, preparing himself for a concert audition by immersing himself in the complex beauties of that Bach toccata.
But, like Charlie, another Keitel character in another emblematic '70s American noir, Scorsese's "Mean Streets," Tom gets a kick out of switching sides. The criminal world of low-life Parisian businessmen, bullies and killers, feeds his machismo; the radiant apartment of his Vietnamese piano teacher Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), feeds his love of beauty. But he needs bothjust as he needs the infidelities and casual pickups that slake him sexually.
In fact Tomwhom Duris plays as an angelic-looking, narcissistic black-jacketed hood in the mold of Pierre Clementi in Bunuel's "Belle de Jour"doesn't seem interested in forsaking one world for the other (though he does) as much as coexisting and triumphing in both. Tom relishes his contradictions, just as the young Toback did and Audiard may too.
Audiard makes films sparingly, but his limited filmography includes critical hits "A Self-Made Hero" (1996) and "Read My Lips" (2001); it has given him a reputation as a new master of the French "polar" or thriller, an heir to Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville. Actually, his style seems closer to provocateurs like Maurice Pialat or Gaspar Noe. Here, Audiard takes Toback's surly, lyrical screenplay, a signature '70s work, and pumps more humanity into it. In the process, he exposes, just as Toback did, the volatile links between French critical intellectualism and American movie gangsterism, the cinematic pistol chamber of existentialism.
"Fingers" was itself heavily influenced by the 1960s French New Wave and "Heart" returns the favor. Like "Fingers," it violently juxtaposes the worlds of crime and classical music, and of sex and art, by giving us a hero who straddles all these domains, and even briefly seems a master of some of them.
Tom has been described as tormented by some critics and perhaps they're remembering how badly and murderously "Fingers" ends. But, often to me, he seemed less torn in two than a compulsive over-reacher, a guy who wants it all and faces an ultimate chastening. That's why Toback's original dark, tragic climax, which isn't used, might not have fit here. The heartbeat that Audiard shows is too real and raw for catharsis.
'The Beat That My Heart Skipped'
('De Battre Mon Couer s'est Arrete')
Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Audiard, Tonino Benacquista (from the 1978 film "Fingers," written and directed by James Toback); photographed by Stephane Fontaine; edited by Juliette Welfling; production designed by Francois Emmanuelli; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Pascal Caucheteux. In French, with English subtitles. A Wellspring release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:47. No MPAA rating (Violence, language and sexuality).
Tom - Romain Duris
Robert - Niels Arestrup
Miao-Lin - Linh-Dan Pham
Aline - Aure Atika
Chris - Emmanuelle Devos
Fabrice - Jonathan ZaccaiCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times