A masterful, poignant `Beat'

MovieReview

August 05, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Every beat of my heart tears me further apart," Rod Stewart once sang, and that's the plight of 28-year-old Thomas in Jacques Audiard's brilliant, brutally poignant The Beat That My Heart Skipped.

In this contemporary story of an arrested adolescent en route to a rocky maturity, Romain Duris is phenomenally moving as Thomas, the son of a Parisian concert-pianist mother and a "property shark" father (Niels Arestrup).

When his mother died in his youth, Thomas lost his classical music ambition. He fell into the semi-legitimate business of snapping up abandoned or under-used properties, then rousting squatters and indigents off the premises by planting vermin or plotting out new floor plans with baseball bats.

Unlike his confreres, Thomas dresses like a hipster with a jones for punk destruction and treats his job like heavy-duty high jinks.

His posture defines his manhood until he runs into his mother's concert manager. Thomas' dad denigrates this cultured fellow as a fey nonentity. But the impresario remembers Thomas' talent and offers him an audition.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped is about what happens when Thomas tries to become a pianist and seek values that differ from the next big cash payoff. He can't keep his sensitivity, canniness and crudeness all in balance. His fixer-upper of a life begins to crumble.

Thomas drapes himself in early-Beatles couture - snug jackets and over-the-ankle, wedge-heeled boots. He stands apart from his best friend, Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccai), who wears a business suit that fits his monetary ambitions and haute-bourgeois lifestyle, complete with mistresses. Thomas covers for Fabrice's infidelities, but not comfortably. He's a hard guy with passionate eruptions, not soft edges. He can't prevent his deeper emotions from jumping out, including his feelings for Fabrice's wife, Aline.

Before he ever really falls in love, he's a fool for love of every kind. He's endearing when he strives to get his father to appreciate the electro rock he listens to on headphones. He bristles with convoluted desire when he's in the presence of Aline (Aure Atika). And once he decides to go all out for Bach, he surrenders himself to art - though his version of surrender is more like a pitched battle or armed retreat.

The scenes between Thomas and his Vietnamese piano teacher, Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), are marvels of emotional expressiveness and chemistry. They appear to play the unplayable: the music of the soul. She doesn't speak French: She communicates only with traditional musical directions and body language and sounds. Thomas proves to be her grunting, hyper-masculine opposite. The way Duris enacts Thomas and Audiard directs him, this man must fight his way into submission to his muse.

The whole movie is a paradigm of creative destruction. Thomas breaks through all his bonded allegiances, to his friend and associate Fabrice and even to Robert, his father - a tough fellow to resist, given Arestrup's expansive, irresistibly earthy performance. The integrity of the movie lies in its trueness to Thomas' volatility and limits. When his dad introduces his girlfriend (the expertly wary Emmanuelle Devos) as his fiancee, Thomas reflexively denounces her as a whore, then tries to hire her as a companion-mate behind his father's back when he sees how badly the old man falters without her.

As he showed in Read My Lips (2001), director Audiard is a master at electrifying his characters' states of mind. When Thomas drags a drunken Fabrice home one night, and Aline foggily stumbles out of the bedroom clad in her nightshirt, you feel a carpet spark of passion hit Thomas through the gloom. The scenes with Thomas and Aline are explosive mixtures of tenderness and unease; you believe Thomas when he says he lied about painting the town red with Fabrice precisely because he adores Aline. Too bad she can't give Thomas what he needs: peace. That's something he can find only, perhaps, if he masters Bach - and maybe only with Miao-Lin.

The movie has been heralded not just as a remake but as an improvement on James Toback's 1977 milestone of American independence and originality, Fingers, a movie that freely, giddily, scarily expresses the highs and lows of pre-Giuliani Manhattan.

There's no need, though, to denigrate the original in order to praise its successor. What Audiard has done is take a nightmare movie about a divided soul and turn it into an odd, three-quarter odyssey, appealing for its own slightly unfinished and "off" qualities. It isn't thoroughly Gallic and it isn't just New Yorkese in translation. It's a glorious hybrid - a rose in Paris' version of Spanish Harlem.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Starring Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Aure Atika

Directed by Jacques Audiard

Released by Wellspring

Time 107 minutes

Unrated

Sun Score **** (four stars)

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