Thomas Seyr’s life is shaping up to be just like his father’s, including a career in dad’s business of thuggery and shakedowns. But as is often the case, perhaps a piano can save him.
This is “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (“De battre mon coeur s’est arreté”), a French remake of James Toback’s 1977 film “Fingers.” Thomas (Romain Duris) is in his late 20s and, with two testosterone-heavy buddies, is involved in “real estate.” Their specific source of income is shady and vague. Thomas’ father Robert (Niels Arestrup) owns some property and is not afraid to beat people up who do not pay their rent on time, or to send Thomas to do the beating-up for him. Thomas and his partners are also sometimes dispatched to let rats loose in apartment buildings. I don’t know what purpose that serves, exactly, but anytime people are setting rats free in hallways, you know the motive behind it is not pure.
Thomas has resigned himself to continuing his life in this fashion when he runs into Mr. Fox (Sandy Whitelaw), who managed his late mother’s performances when she was a concert pianist. Fox wants to know how Thomas’ own playing is coming along. Thomas confesses he has barely played in 10 years. Still, Fox wants him to come audition for him. The conversation with Fox marks the first time in the film that we see Thomas looking interested in life. When he’s with his libidinous low-life father, or with his suit-wearing lowlife friends, he seems bored, even embarrassed to be part of such a life.
When he gets home and starts tinkering on the piano again, we realize he has fibbed a little to Mr. Fox. Clearly Thomas has played often in the last decade, perhaps not with a teacher, and perhaps not seriously, but certainly with some frequency. His fingers, after some coaxing, are once again covering the familiar paths of a Bach piece.
As he locates an instructor to prepare him for his audition and starts rehearsing again in earnest, there is still the little matter of Thomas’ daily life. His partners and father are not regular attendees of piano concerts, nor are they interested in letting Thomas forsake their lifestyle for a life of music.
As Thomas grows increasingly disenchanted with the world of “real estate,” he becomes frustrated and occasionally violent, a man trapped between the beauty of music and the ugliness of his profession. Romain Duris (playing the role Harvey Keitel filled in the original) walks the line well, often hiding his deepest emotions from us only to let them out later in a rage. You can feel, quite palpably, Thomas’ mixed emotions, his sense of loyalty being forced against his sense of creativity.
That is the lead performance. The rest of the film, directed by Jacques Audiard (“Read My Lips”) and written by him and Tonino Benacquista, is troublesome, for it does not ultimately seem to “go” anywhere. Thomas’ situation is unfortunate, and Duris plays it well — but what about it? It doesn’t seem enough simply to show us a man at war with himself. You need to show, if not a definitive outcome to the war, at least some indication of why the war is important. Audiard wraps himself up in this one character’s circumstances and lets it go at that. Luckily, Duris fills the role with enough sympathy to make the film decent, albeit not as good as it should have been.
B- (1 hr., 47 min.; French with subtitles; )