Writer James Toback's seldom-seen 1978 directorial debut, "Fingers," has taken on a mythical aura over the years, its scarcity on TV and the revival circuit obscuring one crucial fact: The movie isn't all that good. Harvey Keitel, fresh from his appearance in Martin Scorsese's groundbreaking "Mean Streets," winces and groans his way through a thriller that is putatively about a criminal who harbors dreams of being a concert pianist, but that's really just the first of many pretexts for Toback to indulge his adolescent sexual preoccupations. (Nearly 30 years later he's still at it.)
Because "Fingers" possesses such a legendary, if undeserved, place in the contemporary canon, and because it is actually no great shakes, the French director Jacques Audiard has shown astute judgment in deciding to remake it. "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," in which Audiard has tightened the story while opening it up, works precisely where "Fingers" failed, creating a wholly believable world in which its characters are fully realized people in their own right, rather than stand-ins for the director's own obsessions.
Here, Romain Duris plays Thomas, a 28-year-old heir to his father's shady real estate business who, after a chance encounter, begins to entertain fantasies of reviving his once-promising concert piano career. Audiard, whose most recent film was the Hitchcockian thriller "Read My Lips" in 2001, does a good job of limning both worlds, invoking John Cassavetes and David Mamet in his depiction of Thomas's ruthless real estate colleagues. Things are much quieter when Thomas is at home practicing or working with his recital coach, a prim Vietnamese pianist named Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham). And unlike Keitel's ridiculous pretense at playing a Bach toccata, Duris -- who resembles a slightly stringier version of Daniel Day-Lewis -- delivers an entirely convincing keyboard performance, one whose occasional grunts and exclamations are borne of intensity and focus rather than mere overacting.
In "Fingers," Keitel's character was a tightly wound neurotic who sublimated his sexual anxiety by constantly drumming his fingers and took a huge radio with him wherever he went. Thankfully, that painfully awkward prop has here been replaced by a much sleeker Walkman, and Duris has toned down the physical histrionics to portray, simply, a young man on the verge of a tumultuous transition. His problematic relationship with his reprobate father (played here by the terrifically debauched-looking Niels Arestrup) is still a major plot point, and Thomas's filial loyalty still comes into play in the film's surprising final scenes. But Audiard gives him a more substantive romantic life, which in turn sends him into directions that fans of the first film won't see coming.
"The Beat That My Heart Skipped" still shares one fundamental problem with "Fingers": Why should the audience care much about a character who is essentially a self-involved lowlife pursuing a narcissistic fantasy? But in Audiard's capable hands, Thomas's quest becomes not an ego trip but a genuine journey of discovery. "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" is a nifty piece of work -- with, by the way, a fantastic musical score and soundtrack -- that, if there's any justice in the movie world, will eventually earn a mystique all its own.
The Beat That My Heart Skipped (107 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark E Street) is not rated. It contains profanity, violence and some sexual situations.