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The Beat That My Heart Skipped
cast: Romain Duris, Niels Arrestup, Jonathan Zaccai, and Linh Dan Pham

director: Jacques Audiard

102 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 16:9
Artificial Eye DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
De battre mon coeur s'est arrâté (aka: The Beat That My Heart Skipped) was a surprising hit at the UK box office and, perhaps more surprisingly, for what is a quintessentially French film, it is a remake of an American film. Made in 1978 and starring Harvey Keitel, Fingers was written and directed by James Tobak (perhaps more famous for his 1991 biopic Bugsy) and was a densely symbolic tale about the duality of man and the conflicting emotions and desires that make us who we are. Sticking to the same broad narrative strokes, Jacques Audiard and co-writer Tonino Benacquista have made a film that is at the same time more complex and simpler than Fingers but is undeniably French.

Like his father, Tom Sayr is a slumlord. He spends his time beating up squatters, releasing rats into buildings and cutting shady real estate deals with his equally ruthless friends. However, as much as he may be his father's son, he is also his mother's. One day, a chance encounter with his mother's old impresario re-ignites Tom's long-dormant dream to become a concert pianist. The film deals with his attempts to come to terms with who he really wants to be as he tries to keep his business afloat while spending all his energy on preparing for an audition. Add to this his complex relationship with his father and the sexual tension he seemingly feels between himself and every woman he meets and you have a complex coming of age tale about a 28-year-old.

Keitel's Jimmy Fingers was a man eternally caught between extreme opposites. He was in the mafia but he also longed to be a pianist; he loved classical music but was obsessed with 1950s' pop, he wanted to be a romantic but he also wanted sex. Even his clothes spoke of this duality as his standard mafia black jacket was adorned with a whimsical white scarf. Interviews with Audiard and Benacquista reveal that while the director adored the original film, Benacquista hated it. As Audiard himself remarks, this meant that the two had to come to a compromise about what the remake would be about. This compromise is obvious from the way in which the film simplifies the film and complicates it.

While Fingers spoke somewhat unfashionably by modern tastes, about the duality and contradictions of man, The Beat That My Heart Skipped simplifies matters by placing Tom between two poles; the call of the world of vice and violence and the artistic purity of his desire to be a concert pianist. However, the problem is that this tension is obvious to everyone after about half an hour and it really isn't enough to support a whole film, especially not a film that sets out to be a character study like The Beat That My Heart Skipped. So, the other poles of Jimmy Fingers' existence are transformed into complications. Tom's desire to be a concert pianist is linked to his love for his dead mother. But his love for his live father (a wonderfully decaying and corrupt performance by Niels Arrestup), whilst symbolising Tom's links to the world of vice he inhabits, is also changing as he finds himself having to more and more frequently be the 'grown up' for his elderly father. Add to this Tom's sexual incontinence regarding every woman he meets and you're left with a character study that is undeniably complex. However, therein lies the rub...

Romain Duris' performance as Tom is ultimately un-engaging, which is unfortunate as he is never off-screen for more than a few seconds at a time. Petulant, childish and unsympathetic from the start, Tom's evident sexual magnetism seems utterly unbelievable coming from Duris who must be about five feet tall, looks like Tracy Emin and dresses like Jeremy Clarkson in Cuban heels. Too slight and pretty to pull off animal magnetism and too down at heel and unlikable to be charming, Tom is a mess. However, this mess is arguably not Duris' fault. While the complex and interrelating emotions of the script might look and sound fantastic in a production meeting, they prove far too complex to effectively play. As a result, Duris is forced to act 'emotional' and 'unhappy' without any focus or nuance to his performance. Indeed, it is only when Duris is interacting with Arrestup that you see any real depth to his performance as his blend of love and hatred and attachment and revulsion will ring true for anyone who has ever had a close relationship with an elderly parent.

Ultimately, this film is frustrating. The various affairs and incestuous relationships that plague Tom's life do not add depth to his character or the film's plot. Instead, they rob the film of its emotional focus and utterly undermine the bloody finale. Pointless, loveless affairs with friends are so omnipresent in French films that they have become almost a genre conceit in and of themselves. Audiard and Benacquista here use them in the same way as every other French filmmaker uses them. Namely, as a lazy and clichéd way of shouting "he's going through a crisis!" at the audience whilst allowing them to stroke their chins and muse about how mature and sophisticated they are for not being shocked by watching a film with lots of shagging in it. Indeed, despite the protestations of the director and much of the critical press, this film has nothing to do with the 'noir' genre... if it belongs to a genre then it is the genre of French films about mid-life crises featuring shagging and smoking and Paris.
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