The optimistic flip-side to James Tobak’s Harvey Keitel-headlined Fingers, Jacques Audiard’s remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped substitutes that film’s bleak psychosexual head games and emasculated machismo with a more straightforward tale of one man’s warring allegiances to his father and mother. Faithfully adhering to his source material’s semi-implausible premise while transposing his narrative to a gray, grimy Paris, Audiard’s latest stunner recounts the tale of Tom (Romain Duris), a real estate broker following in his father’s footsteps whose miserable profession—which requires him to acquire property through repulsively underhanded and violent means—stands in stark contrast to his dream of being (like his mother) a concert pianist. Tom is a man at odds with himself, his nimble fingers employed for contradictorily aggressive and artistic purposes, and Audiard’s inharmonious mise-en-scène—preoccupied with the contrast between light and dark, moral and immoral, hope and resignation—deftly enhances his film’s meditation on the contrary nature of masculinity and filial loyalty.
Rather than attempt to match Keitel’s drop-of-a-dime explosiveness, Duris wisely opts for a mixture of insecure intensity and pent-up jitteriness as Tom, and his forceful performance is the anchor to Audiard and co-screenwriter Tonino Benacquista’s somewhat schematic conceptualization of the troubled protagonist. Tom’s duality requires some suspension of disbelief (since it’s hard to fathom such a roughneck obsessing over Bach), yet the dashingly disheveled Duris—who continually looks like he slept in his clothes—is a magnetic presence, utilizing his shifty eyes, frantic hand movements, and inscrutable smile to convey his characters’ inner strife. As a result of his mother’s former manager Mr. Fox offering him an audition during a chance encounter, Tom (having not seriously tickled the ivories in 10 years) accidentally finds himself at an emotional and professional crossroads. And his situation becomes even more complicated when he decides to openly rebel against his alpha male co-workers—whose use of rats to scare tenants from their homes speaks to their unscrupulous sleaziness—by beginning a torrid, clandestine affair with adulterous friend Fabrice’s (Jonathan Zaccaï) wife Aline (Aure Atika).
As in Tobak’s neo-noir, Tom is driven to a violent climax by his father’s (Niels Arestrup) guilt-laden request that his son help collect unpaid debts from a big-time gangster, and Audiard retains not only many of that original film’s key events (including Tom’s expletive-filled phone call at a country club swimming pool, and a bloody encounter in a stairwell) but also its semi-misogynistic portrait of women as either whores (Tom’s dad’s fiancé, a mobster’s girlfriend) or saints (Tom’s deceased, never-seen mother, the spurned Aline). However, in this remake’s most important departure, Audiard bestows Tom with an accomplished Chinese piano teacher named Miao Lin (Linh-Dan Pham) who has just arrived in Paris and speaks no French. The polar opposite of his controlling father—who derisively dismisses Tom’s desire to resume his piano dreams and disparages Mr. Fox (in an example of the pot calling the kettle black) as “a pimp”—Miao Lin is Tom’s chance at salvation, and her inability to verbally converse with her pupil serves as a symbolic representation of the aspiring pianist’s cathartic struggle to communicate with his artistic instincts.
Audiard documents Tom’s journey toward maternal embracement (via his music career) and paternal denunciation (and the corrupt, money-driven real estate business that his old man represents) with a relentlessly subjective camera, creating an intimate proximity through single-take sequences featuring tight close-ups—regularly positioned just below Tom’s five o’clock shadow-covered face, or on his hands as they caress piano keys or Aline’s body—and hand-held tracking shots from behind his protagonist’s back. Photographed with off-the-cuff immediacy by Stéphane Fontaine, The Beat That My Heart Skipped depicts Tom’s precarious balancing act between two worlds by way of washed-out cinematography that’s both jumpy (during its nocturnal real estate work scenes) and measured (during action confined to Miao Lin’s brightly-lit apartment). Often, this bifurcated visual structure mirrors the film’s thematic fixations a tad too neatly, and discussions about how sons paradoxically wind up “fathering” their aging, needy dads—an aside which relates to the central subject of manipulative parent-child relationships—feels overly obvious. Yet Audiard infuses his drama with portentous momentum, and his rosy-eyed finale involving Tom’s opportunity to alter his wayward course—a conclusion at variance with the story’s preceding cynicism—serves as an ironically apt ending for a film so doggedly steeped in opposition.