(De Battre Mon Coeur s’est Arrete)

Directed by Jacques Audiard. France. 2005.

Reviewed by Patrick Bliss and Howard Schumann

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It has become customary for tired Hollywood producers to look for European art house successes which can be remade in a more commercial style. Think of Cameron Crows remake of Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) as Vanilla Sky or Mike Nichols remake of Cage Aux Folles. The Beat That My Heart Skipped, is a rare case of the reverse happening. After the success of Read My Lips, French director Jaques Audiard turned to James Tobaks 1978 Harvey Keitel vehicle Fingers, and remade it as an altogether more stylish and powerful film. Tobaks film, a favourite of Godard and Tarranino, is often through of as some sort of lost masterpiece and has been favourably compared to Taxi Driver. On revisiting it, I found it over plotted and over long, but an interesting and overlooked piece of cinema history all the same. 

The Beat that My Heart Skipped focuses on Thomas Seyr (a top notch performance from Romain Duris), who has followed in his fathers footsteps and gone into business at the sleazy end of the property development market. He and his colleagues daily routine involves planting rats and setting fire to buildings to drive tenants out. Sometimes they resort even more direct aggression and violence in order to get their way. A chance meeting with his long dead mothers piano teacher brings new meaning to his life…..

Essentially it’s a film about the age old Oedipus concept, as Thomas flits between the violent influence of his father and the artistic heritage of his mother. As he becomes more engrossed with his piano practice, so he is drawn away from the wheeler dealing lifestyle of his father and business partners. Soon he is dancing to a different beat.  But is his piano playing good enough to offer him an escape route? Shades of Al Pachinos desire to concentrate on legitimate business in the Godfather perhaps, also there are parallels with Billy Elliot as Thomas goes against the grain of his contemporaries. 

After being promised an audition, Thomas starts visiting a young Vietnamese tutor, Miao Lin, who has recently arrived in Paris on a scholarship. Miao Lin cannot speak French and the strained communication between them parallels Thomas’ struggle with his father and his own sense of identity. Audaird wisely chooses not to subtitle Maio Lins Vietnamese dialogue to further illustrate the frustration that Thomas feels. 

Good use is made of music throughout the film, periodically switching from electro to classical to illustrate the dichotomy of Thomas’ world. Perhaps the most telling scene has Thomas, hands still bruised from “business” dealings, tapping out classical piano chords on a bar, while techno music blares out in the background and his thuggish partners discuss how they are going to drive their next deal home. 

Audaird is quickly is making a name for himself for turning out well crafted, intelligent thrillers. From Tobaks source material he has retained the protagonists internal struggle with the self, toned down his misogynistic tendencies, lost a subplot or two and given us a more satisfying ending. Now the only question left is: who is the best one handed piano player, Keitel or Duris?!!! 

Patrick Bliss

Tom Seyr (Romain Duris) is a nattily dressed 28-year old Parisian real estate debt enforcer who works for his father (Niels Arestrup), a sleazy housing profiteer. Seyr and his low-life buddies, Fabrice (Jonathan Zacca) and Sami (Gilles Cohen), acquire property for resale at a profit, making certain by any means necessary including violence that all squatters are removed. When a chance encounter opens the possibility for the opportunity for Tom to become a concert pianist like his mother, he finds that breaking away from his past is not so easy. Winner of eight César awards including best film and best director, Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a loose remake of James Toback's Fingers starring Harvey Keitel. In Fingers, Keitel plays the son of a gangster and a concert pianist who is torn between the efficiency of his father's profession and the passion of his deceased mother. 

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is shot with dark colours to create a mood of foreboding. It is not all atmosphere, however. Audiard uses disorienting jump cuts, bizarre camera angles, and a hand-held camera close to the character's anatomy to create a frenetic pace and energy to spare. Romain Duris, a young French actor loaded with talent and charisma, plays the tightly wound Seyr with manic intensity. He is an operator on the lowest level, beating up restaurant proprietors that are delinquent in their bills and unleashing rats in a tenement to drive out the squatters. He seems to relish the jobs he is asked to do but still dreams of becoming a concert pianist. When he runs into his mother's former concert manager, (Sandy Whitelaw) he asks for the opportunity for an audition, then engages a petite Chinese piano teacher Miao Lin (Linh-Dan Pham) to assess his abilities. Since he does not speak Chinese and she does not speak French, the film could have been called Read My Lips II. 

Miao is a civilizing influence and tries to stop Seyr from attacking the piano as if he was clubbing a tenant behind in his rent but cannot put a lid on his temperament. Their relationship develops slowly but erupts as both explode in frustration at his inability to follow instructions or master Bach's Toccata. To make life even more complicated, he is having an affair with his best friend's wife, and also brazenly seduces a mobster's girlfriend. While continuing to develop his artistic sensibility, Seyr carries out his father's suggestions to "take care" of recalcitrant payees, presumably out of love or guilt or both. He is very protective of his father and does not refuse his requests, though he has little respect for him, telling him that the woman he is thinking of marrying is a whore. 

When Seyr agrees to take on Minskov (Anton Yakovlev), a Russian Mafia boss who does not keep his promises, it is clear that he is in over his head and he begins to rethink his relationship with his father. Audiard captures the character's nervous intensity and brings the macho sub-culture of Paris to life, yet the film lacks any semblance of warmth. The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about choices and the willingness to change our direction in life and we relate to Seyr's struggle with different sides of his personality. While Duris' performance rings with a fundamental honesty, I found it difficult to locate a common humanity with this dark, shady man. His cold, abrasive personality and the film's gratuitous violence make this portrait of the artist as a young hoodlum difficult to embrace. Somehow thuggery against poor people and the humanity of Beethoven or Mozart seem incompatible. While there is a lot to admire here, for me it is a film that my heart skipped. 


Howard Schumann
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