The Beat That My Heart Skipped
2005Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Lihn Dan Pham, Emmanuelle Devos
rapped beneath the layers of convention in The Beat That My Heart Skipped lies the potential for a superb movie. But ultimately, what might have been a skilled examination of a troubled youth rediscovering his passion for music becomes a routine drama with flourishes of creativity.
Generally speaking, French films (and for that matter, any foreign film) fall under the common misconception of existing outside American appreciation, their themes and styles something the average American moviegoer vehemently resists to the extent that their assumed tone has become something people chuckle at or disregard as too “arty” (perhaps that’s why all overseas films are merely classified as foreign rather than being grouped together alongside more specific American classifications such as thriller, drama or comedy).
But more and more, foreign films, specifically French ones, have begun to distance themselves from the qualities that for so long have defined them as an escape from the drudgery of Hollywood. They choose instead to pander to American audiences, borrowing their styles from us not in the way the nouvelle vague at times deconstructed our film noir, but in a way that sanitizes that which is foreign for an American market. Not that I can cast blame upon individual directors for wanting to make marketable films any more than the uninformed moviegoer has any right to poke fun at films like The Son or Songs From the Second Floor for being too alienating, but that shouldn’t stop me from preferring those films over the more conventional imports.
"OK, would it be rude to turn around right this very second?"
That said, The Beat That My Heart Skipped is the kind of film that could have been made by Americans. In fact, it has, since it is based loosely on an American film I’ve never seen called Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel. Maybe after viewing that film as a sort of companion piece to this one I might be inclined to go easier on The Beat, but even so I think it probably stands well enough on its own. Regardless, its American source material doesn’t excuse it from its own lack of invention.
Since a film like the Beat That My Heart Skipped already possesses a built-in niche audience, why not embrace its foreign status and experiment wildly with the narrative, take more chances rather than opt for the easy way out? To return to the film itself, The Beat follows the exploits of Thomas whose profession is in the seedier side of “real estate” (planting rats in apartment complexes to lower the market price, driving squatters out of their shelters with bats). A chance encounter with his mother’s ex-manager inspires him to return to playing piano after a ten year hiatus following her death.
Music itself becomes a not so subtle escape from the dilemmas Thomas faces in his life. He drives around aimlessly with the radio blaring, bobbing his head to the beat; walks the streets with headphones on shutting himself off from the world. But his problems find ways of breaking through his barriers. His father plays the part of the victim, evoking his son’s sympathies as a way of manipulating him into roughing up shop owners behind on their rent. His colleague in real estate uses him as an alibi to assist him in concealing his extra-marital affairs. However, despite their passing appeal, all these subplots never fully form into anything worthwhile and what should ultimately dominate the film- his pursuit of music- does not receive nearly enough screen time.
Man, Nick Nolte has really let himself go...
Thomas does manage to secure a tutoring session with a Chinese concert pianist Miao-Lin, who has only just arrived in France. She speaks not a word of French, and he understands no Chinese, yet they carry out their sessions regardless, creating some of the most provocative moments in the film in which their shared understanding of music becomes the sole form of communication. During these moments the director, Jacques Audiard, holds the shots as long as possible, generating the sense of intensity and frustration that comes with learning such a craft. Thomas struggles with the language barrier, and at times loses his temper, but his teacher approaches these outbursts as I’d expect she’d handle any other student. Since her dialogue isn’t subtitled we, like Thomas, must read her facial expressions and body language as indicators of what she wants to express.
I wanted more of these scenes, but not in the way I suspect the film would have developed them, forcing out a contrived romance when what it really needs is an unresolved tension. Then again, the film fumbles with many of its romantic themes. For instance, Thomas telling his colleague’s wife that he loves her after she discovers his role in concealing her husband’s affairs leads to a dead end in the plot.
The film expresses far more confidence when lingering on its quieter moments, when the raw emotion is contained just below the surface. When something utterly tragic occurs near the end of the film, the camera lingers unsteadily on Thomas’s face, allowing the natural emotion of his visage to conduct our attention rather than manipulating it through gaudy editing. It really draws out the talented performance of Romain Duris, who, if nothing else, should receive much needed exposure.
Strong central performance and sporadic moments of brilliance aside, the film never rises above its patchiness. It’s neither appallingly bad, nor noticeably accomplished. It exists only to hold a place in an otherwise vacant art house theatre for the summer, passing from big screen to video shelf without a glance from the general public. That may sound harsh, but better films more deserving of attention have suffered worse fates than that, and if that happens to be the sad destiny of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, you’ll hear few words of protest from me.